Finance and Pornography at the SEC: A Media Studies Approach (Research)

Posted on January 16, 2013, in Internet, Pornography Laws, Societal

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Author: Mark Hayward


This short piece examines investigations into the use of workplace computers to access pornographic material at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the United States. Rather than focus on the individual or institutional morality of these activities, it examines what thinking about the role played by media in these violations of SEC policy tell us about the changing nature of institutional power and labour in the contemporary moment. Looking at practices of media use and the legal frameworks that structured the porn scandal at the SEC, it concludes by suggesting that media-oriented approach to the economy raises many possibilities for critique and engagement.

Workers viewing pornography at work at US Securities and Exchange CommissionIn April 2010, the Inspector General of the SEC responded to an inquiry from Iowa‟s Republican Senator Charles E. Grassley regarding an ongoing investigation into “SEC employees and contractors misusing government computer resources to view pornographic images during the past five years” (Kotz 2010; Grassley 2010). Along with details of some of the cases, the SEC‟s response also described how the individuals under investigation had often made use of a variety of tricks and subterfuges to circumvent the controls put in place in order to block sites that were deemed obscene or to deal with sex in an inappropriate manner. Across the political spectrum, reaction to news of these investigations into the misuse of government resources was to view them as evidence of the moral decay that had taken over the nation‟s financial sector in the lead up to the economic crisis of 2008. Politicians and pundits on both the left and the right integrated these events into their narratives for explaining the US‟s troubling economic predicament. Even though revelations regarding the SEC‟s problems with the circulation and viewing of sexually explicit material during office hours had already bee made public in annual reports since 2007 (Egbert 2007, and subsequent semi-annual reports available on the SEC website), news of the investigation were woven into debates over proposed reforms of the banking industry and financial sector then making their way through Congress and the Senate Darrell Issa, a Republican member of Congress from California, summed up how the scandal was evidence that attempts to bolster the powers of existing regulatory agencies were fundamentally flawed.1 In a widely reported public statement on the report sent to Grassley, he commented: “This stunning report should make everyone question the wisdom of moving forward with plans to give regulators like the S.E.C. even more widespread authority” (Oro 2010; O‟Keefe 2010). Taking the opposite position, other critics saw these investigations as evidence that the SEC had become lax in fulfilling its duty to protect the public from improper activities in stock and securities markets. A segment on Rachel Maddow‟s program on MSNBC by Kent Jones mockingly concluded, referring to the name of a website mentioned in the testimony of an SEC employee, “Let the history books note the second American depression was caused by” (Maddow 2010). While most of the investigations revealed evidence of several hundred attempts to access inappropriate websites, but the summary of the investigations cited ten individual cases out of thirty-three that were carried out over a five-year period.2 Giving support to the theory that Senator Grassley‟s inquiry was intended to provoke public reaction, these cases seem to have been selected because they were particularly egregious in flaunting the norms of workplace behavior. For example, there was the “senior attorney” who accessed pornographic sites so frequently that he sometimes spent as many as eight hours a day viewing sexually explicit material, filling up his entire hard drive with images and videos as well as several CDs and DVDs “that he accumulated in boxes in his office.” The “staff accountant” who received over 16,000 access denial warnings during a one-month period for attempting to access sites identified as “Sex or Pornography websites” was also singled out. Beyond giving rise to shock, dismay and flurry of quips about poor time management, the scale of these violations should also draw attention to the significance of media technology in these events. The sheer volume of material downloaded in the most visible cases moves the accumulation of these  images and videos beyond what could be consumed by any individual viewer/user, pointing towards the media that were at the center of the scandal. Moving beyond understandings of media consumption that are anchored in attentive subjective experience of content on screens, it becomes clear that these events occur at a different register from the typical panics surrounding Internet pornography. For this vantage point, we can begin to develop a media-oriented approach to the collision of pornography and finance, situating it in the context of the social formations and subjectivities that define media use in the age of financial capitalism. While the argument that I am making is far from deterministic, I believe that there are two ways to make sense of this intersection that involve both general social changes and more situated changes in the constitution of the economy. First, it is necessary to acknowledge the scale and practices of accumulation (both in terms of the amount of capital and media material) are structured by the capacity of networked personal computers to handle large amounts of data; indeed, the above-mentioned violations occurred at a scale only possible in the age of networked information. 3 Second, these practices of accumulation did not occur in a vacuum, but must be read as the reciprocal reinforcing of two ways of conceiving and using the screen as a private and secure space for individuated reception. However, more than an isolated and aberrant use of media technology, the SEC porn scandal speaks the more general role of media technology in the contemporary economy, a way of media technology that deserves furthe elaboration.

Mark Hayward

July 1, 2011

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