The Freewheeling Web’s Privacy Noose

It’s no secret that individual privacy has already suffered since the Internet era began, but privacy law expert Daniel Solove believes things are likely to get even worse — much worse — and he illustrates his vision in living color with a wealth of examples from the here and now.

In The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale University Press, 2007) — now available as a free download — Solove begins his dark tale with the classic story of “dog poop girl,” a young woman now famous for refusing to clean up after her dog on a South Korea subway train.

Outraged fellow passengers took photos of her and posted them online; from there, her image spread all across the Internet, eventually entering the mainstream media as well. Dog poop girl was shamed and humiliated, with the ultimate result that she dropped out of her university.

Her reputation was ruined, and all because she committed a simple act of rude behavior — the likes of which most of us have probably also been guilty of at one time or another.

Threats to Freedom

Twenty years ago, passengers would have likely scowled at dog poop girl and maybe forced her to endure a rude comment or two, but then she would have been forgotten. Not so today.

“Information that was once scattered, forgettable and localized is becoming permanent and searchable,” Solove writes. “Ironically, the free flow of information threatens to undermine our freedom in the future.”

Such changes stand to erode people’s control over their own reputations, he adds. “Will we enslave ourselves by making it impossible to escape from the shackles of our past and from the stain of gossip and false rumors?” he asks. “How much information should we know about each other? How do we allow people to control their personal information without curtailing free speech or stifling freedom on the Internet?”

Such questions are at the heart of the Internet’s dark side, which Solove chronicles in convincing detail with a litany of vivid examples.

‘Digital Scarlet Letter’

In Part I of the book, Solove looks at reputation, gossip and shaming. Chapter 4, for instance, is entitled “Shaming and the Digital Scarlet Letter,” and it chronicles the many ways we can be branded online.

There are virtues to such online shaming possibilities, Solove notes, such as consumers’ relatively newfound ability to shame companies into living up to their promises and providing better service.

In the individual realm, however, the vices are more numerous. If we do something considered inappropriate by someone else, they can put the spotlight on our indiscretion in a permanent and searchable way. Solove paints a picture of a world in which we can never live down our past indiscretions, where a fresh start isn’t possible, and where every mistake we have ever made can be saved, broadcast and used to humiliate us.

Lack of Due Process

One could argue that shameful behavior deserves to be shamed, of course, particularly when it’s committed in public. However, who will decide what behavior deserves such punishment? And is it fair to punish people without giving them a chance to explain, without some sort of due process? Those are among the key questions Solove raises.

Part II of The Future of Reputation is where Solove tries to begin answering such questions. As an associate professor of law at the George Washington University Law School (and a blogger at Concurring Opinions), Solove not surprisingly tends to turn to legal approaches.

New Torts

Informal efforts such as mediation and arbitration should be the first step taken to resolve the problems that arise, Solove suggests. Failing resolution there, however, litigation would be the next step, with an array of new torts, norms and rights that remain to be spelled out.

The law’s recognition of privacy needs to be expanded, Solove argues, to include accessibility, confidentiality and control. It also should afford people more control over their personal information.

Web site creators, meanwhile, should be encouraged to build in mechanisms for dispute resolution, and to establish better ways for people to protect their privacy. Social networks, for example, could require members to take a pledge of confidentiality as one of their terms and conditions, he suggests.

Readers’ political leanings and views on free speech will undoubtedly affect their reaction to Solove’s proposed solutions, which are really more broad ideas than actionable recommendations. However, the book provides a highly worthwhile look at many of the problems that are heading our way.

Critical Lessons

This book, which won the 2007 Donald McGannon Award for Social and Ethical Relevance in Communications Policy Research, is accessible to readers with varying levels of knowledge on the issues involved in privacy, and is also simply a fun read.

More than fun, however, it teaches important lessons for anyone living in this digital age. We all have much more to lose than we realize, Solove asserts, and only by tackling the issues head-on can we emerge on the other side with some shreds of privacy intact. By beginning the conversation, The Future of Reputation can help that process begin.

1 Comment

  • Hi Katherine,

    Great piece. As I was reading your story I started thinking about a new website that I came across recently that blurs many of the lines you discussed. It’s called HumanBook ( and it lets other people post information to my profile (as if they were me) through wiki technology. Here’s the catch… the new website already has the personal information of 200 million people for others to connect with and comment on. I AM sure that this new type of site will open many discussions about web privacy and reputation management.

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