A little over a year ago, a young Englishwoman named Claire Swire sent a naughty email to her then-current beau, a Mr. Bradley Chait, which in a moment of bravado he recklessly forwarded to a few close male friends. One of them apparently passed it on in turn, and soon pretty much the whole world (including readers of several newspapers) knew more about this couple's private life than any normal person would want to reveal. The lady was forced briefly into hiding, and the gentleman quickly became one of the most reviled men in London.
I remember thinking at the time that this was surely only the beginning of a huge flood of such events, the social rules of email having grown and developed far more slowly than its rapidly-exploding use. A similar (though far less embarrassing) event has now overtaken the conservative power couple, David Frum and Danielle Crittenden. Frum, a presidential speechwriter, is allegedly responsible for a well-known phrase spoken in the recent State of the Union address, and his proud wife decided to confide the triumph to some friends and family--one of whom, it seems, had all the discretion of Bradley Chait's friend. The result: an item by Timothy Noah in the online magazine Slate, prompting an angry scolding from Andrew Sullivan for intruding on Crittenden's privacy.
Now, it's impossible to say, really, whether Noah crossed a line in publishing this detail; after all, the lines simply haven't been drawn yet. What does one do if one comes across a compromising forwarded email? Is it the sender's fault for not choosing trustworthy recipients? Is the perfidious "first forwarder" the real villain? Or is there sin only in transferring the knowledge from the unofficial world of forwarded email to the official one of for-the-record publishing? Does a Website (or blog) count as such? Does it matter whether the original sender is a public figure? Or whether the contents involve public affairs or purely private ones?
I don't know how society will end up resolving all these questions, but I strongly suspect we'll end up mulling over many more such incidents before our collective judgment is passed. And then we can proceed to the next twist: suppose the alleged sender claims the original email was forged....