When in 2010 I interviewed Noel Biderman, founder of infidelity website Ashley Madison, he said: “It’s easy to vilify me. But I’m not doing anything wrong. I didn’t invent infidelity.” He had a point, though at the time the moral outrage generated by the site suggested that Biderman had not only invented adultery, but all the evil in the internet too.
Five years on, and his website – and attitude – has spectacularly backfired following a hack that has outed personal details of its members and corporate emails. The outrage value of unprincipled web businesses has certainly dwindled – and within the internet’s wild west of trolling, pornography, cyberbullying, celebrity promotion, ungrammatical communication and hook-up apps, Ashley Madison seems positively tame. Who cares about some largely North American adulterers and their kinks? Arranging an affair through a dating site is pretty vanilla compared to a lot of what goes on. And mainstream dating sites like OkCupid and Match are perfectly good for cheaters too.
And yet Ashley Madison has never stopped being deeply contentious. Failed attempts to float on the New York and London stock exchanges suggested moral recoil on the part of bankers, a group hardly known for their disdain of smut. And so it fell to a group calling themselves Impact Team to reveal the site’s secrets with the moralising zeal of the righteous. Or the wronged – it’s suggested that the hackers had assistance from a disgruntled ex-Ashley Madison employee.
“Time’s up!” the…