Earlier this year, New York magazine published a long piece called “Say Everything.” Subtitled “Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy: The Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock and Roll,” the piece breathlessly revealed that about 60 percent of modern American youth already have their biographical details and images online at MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, or similar social-networking websites. New York’s reporter made a big deal about how “the kids” made her “feel very, very old.” Not only did they casually accept that the record of their lives could be Googled by anyone at any time, but they also tended to think of themselves as having an audience. Some even considered their elders’ expectations about privacy to be a weird, old-fogey thing–a narcissistic hang-up. One teenage girl was asked about cases in which sexual material featuring girls her own age had been posted on the Internet without the subjects’ permission. “It’s either documented online for other people to see or it’s not, but either way you’re still doing it,” the girl replied. “So my philosophy is, why hide it?”
Some prominent technologists have arrived at roughly the same conclusion–if a little more reluctantly. As Sun Microsystems chairman Scott McNealy put it in 1999, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” The view that surveillance is already ubiquitous led David Brin to argue, in his 1998 book The Transparent Society, that our only real choice is between a society that offers the illusion of privacy, by restricting the power of surveillance to those in power, and one where the masses have it too. Brin prefers the latter.
If we don’t like that conclusion, we may gravitate to the opposite pole: the absolutism of organizations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the ACLU, which tend to construe any collection and analysis of personal data by government agencies (and to a lesser extent by corporations) as potentially violating the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment guarantee of citizens’ rights “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
But these two positions may feel, even to their proponents, more theoretical than practicable. Happily, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, by Daniel J. Solove, associate professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, offers alternatives.
The book isn’t much concerned with privacy advocates’ usual bête noire, the surveillance state. Instead, Solove focuses on a more down-to-earth set of concerns. Nowadays, thanks to Marshall McLuhan, we’re accustomed to talking about the “global village.” But traditionally, in villages, everybody knew everybody else’s business; personal privacy and anonymity are social constructs that achieved their current legitimacy when increasing numbers of people started moving to cities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nonetheless, privacy remains simply, as Columbia University professor emeritus of public law Alan F. Westin has phrased it, “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.” That claim had far less authority in the smaller communities in which most people once lived, and those communities had greater power to enforce social norms by enhancing or destroying reputations. In 1910, writer John Jay Chapman testified eloquently to the extent of that power: “If a man can resist the influences of his townsfolk, if he can cut free from the tyranny of neighborhood gossip, the world has no terrors for him; there is no second inquisition.”
And yet, as Solove points out, the current state of the Internet allows townsfolk to be nearly lethal. For one example of the inquisitorial possibilities presented by the digital global village, he suggests, consider the young woman who let her small dog crap on the floor of a South Korean subway train in 2005 and then ignored other passengers who told her to clean up the mess. Somebody took pictures and posted them on a blog. Within hours, the photos were on dozens of other blogs; within days, the young woman had been identified, the story had reached Korea’s mainstream media, and millions knew her as gae-ttong-nyue, or “dog poop girl.” In response, she dropped out of her university.