Yesterday evening, Feb. 4, 2022, BuzzFeed doxxed the founders of Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC). If you aren’t familiar with the term, “doxxing” is the act of uncovering someone’s personal information, such as their name or phone number, and revealing it to the public. Doxxing is sometimes a malicious act, done with the intent of promoting harassment, but not always.
The journalist behind the BuzzFeed piece, senior technology reporter Katie Notopoulos, indicated that the doxxing was justified — necessary, even — in order to protect members of the buying public.
In the article, Notopoulos noted that the collection was so wildly successful, and received such widespread support, that the continued anonymity of the founders was untenable. She argued that the founders’ anonymity made it impossible to hold them accountable. “This reveals a unique problem with the idea of a billion-dollar company run by an unknown person: How do you hold them accountable if you don’t know who they are?,” she wrote.
This is an important and worthy conversation.
Proponents of blockchain and web3 argue that the ability to use a pseudonym is one of the greatest benefits provided by these technologies. Specifically, proponents assert that privacy is a basic human right and an essential component of true freedom. By way of example, they note that anonymous transactions could enable individuals to donate to meaningful causes, like an LGBTQ+ rights organization, without having to reveal their real-world identities and risk persecution.
Others argue that anonymity in financial transactions is dangerous, as it could further criminal activity. For example, it could make money laundering easier and enable individuals to finance terrorism without detection. And in truth, crypto is already being used in these ways.
So, yes. It was (and is) right to ask questions about how we can effectively hold individuals accountable in the age of web3. But was it right to doxx the founders of BAYC? That is a question that must also be asked, and we should come up with an answer before it happens again. Here, we dive into Notopoulos’ rationale in an attempt to help readers determine whether it was necessary to doxx BAYC.
Argument 1: Billion dollar companies must be held accountable
For those who aren’t familiar with the project, BAYC is one of the world’s most influential NFT collections. It was launched on April of 2021 by four individuals who decided to remain anonymous. The ape avatars contained in the collection were initially priced at .08 ETH per ape. Two days later, the project had sold out, and the floor price quickly rose to more than 20 ETH.
Today, the floor price to buy is over $280,000, and the collection has a market cap of around $2.8 billion. Financial Times reports that the company behind the project, Yuga Labs, is in talks with Andreessen Horowitz about an investment that would ultimately value the company at $5 billion.
In the article, Notopoulos noted that some people have criticized BAYC, arguing that “apes in streetwear-inspired outfits and gold teeth is a racist trope” and that “Seneca, the young Asian American artist who actually drew the main artwork, has been underacknowledged and undercompensated for her work.” Notopoulos then claimed that, because the founders remained anonymous, they didn’t have to answer this criticism and couldn’t be held accountable.
But was it actually impossible (or even really difficult) to hold the founders accountable?
Yuga Labs is a registered business. And while not all states require the names and addresses of owners to be listed in public-facing documents, it’s generally not too difficult to determine who the owner is by using other information that does have to be listed in public documents. In fact, this is exactly how Notopoulos found the names of the founders. She just…looked it up. In the article, she writes, “BuzzFeed News searched public business records to reveal the identities of the two core founders.”
So, if anyone ever wanted to know who was behind BAYC to hold them accountable for something, all they ever had to do was look up the official business filings and do a little bit of research. Admittedly, it is possible that some people might have a hard time successfully identifying the founders through public records. After all, you have to know how to search for official business filings and you would have to know how to tie an address to a name. Nonetheless, this raises some important questions.
If information regarding the founders was always at least moderately easy for anyone to find in public documents, why was it necessary to publish their names in an article? Considering that BuzzFeed receives more than 1.2 billion pageviews across its websites in just one month, might it have been a better idea to allow individuals who needed to know the founders’ information to do a little digging and just look it up on their own?
Argument 2: The founders could have been criminals
Another argument that Notopoulos used to justify the doxxing relates to potential criminal activity. In the article, she noted that traditional business owners must give the government their real names to prevent terrorists and criminals from doing business in the US and also to ensure the owners can be held accountable for any legal issues that arise. Notopoulos then argued that problems arise when NFT collectives with massive financial backing aren’t subject to the same rules, as there is no way to determine if the founders have a criminal record or to hold them accountable for any illegal activity.
This is generally a fair point. However, Yuga Labs is not a nameless NFT collective. It’s a limited liability company (LLC) that is registered in the state of Delaware.
In other words, it is a traditional business. The names of the founders are known to the government, and so the founders of BAYC were never anonymous. Yes, they used pseudonyms when engaging with the public, but that’s a far cry from actually being anonymous with the government. Ultimately, the government would be able to hold the founders accountable if there was any criminal activity associated with the business.
So why was it necessary for BuzzFeed to publish the names of the BAYC founders? The move didn’t empower the government to do anything that it couldn’t have done before
As a final point, Notopoulos stated in the article that BuzzFeed’s investigation failed to find any “red flags” with either of the founders. Based on the information that is available, neither of the founders are doing (or has done) anything illegal. So why was it necessary to publicly name (once again, to literally billions of readers) two individuals who didn’t do anything wrong?
A final word
As was previously noted, we need to discuss how individuals and organizations can be held accountable in the age of blockchain and web3. We need to discuss how we should weigh privacy needs alongside the need for accountability. And there are a lot of individuals and organizations who actually are anonymous and who could be aiding and abetting criminals. So these questions are both important and pressing.
However, the founders of Yuga Labs were never truly anonymous. As a result, it was entirely unnecessary for BuzzFeed to publicly post their information.
Editor’s note: To respect the privacy of the Yuga Lab founders, we have chosen to neither state their names nor link to the BuzzFeed article in this story. We reached out to Katie Notopoulos, but she did not immediately respond to requests for comment. We will update this article with any responses we receive.