Early in his exploration of the nature of privacy and reputation in the Internet era, author Daniel Solove writes the following:
"Ironically, the unconstrained flow of information on the Internet might impede our freedom."
This statement sets the tone and theme for Solove's excellent survey of public self-disclosure and protection of privacy in The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. Mr. Solove, an associate professor at the George Washington University School of Law, is an expert in Internet privacy issues. In The Future of Reputation, he examines the specific conundrum which occurs when people voluntarily submit details of their personal lives to blogs and social media sites. Once published, such information can take on a life of its own. Mr. Solove cites a number of well-publicized incidents in which personal disclosures have circulated beyond the personal network they were originally intended to entertain:
- The unlooked-for success of the Star Wars Kid video.
- The revealing sex life of the Washingtonienne blogger.
- The surprise identity of a federal judiciary groupie.
In these cases, the originators of the information rapidly lost control of how their personal disclosures were used. Some lost jobs, others suffered public embarrassment, and all provided case studies from which Internet legal scholars such as Mr. Solove to argue that law must evolve more rapidly to deal with the quicksilver change of the Internet era.
Mr. Solove presents three potential legal responses to the problem of protecting privacy when people participate in self-disclosure. One he calls Libertarian, in which no external restraints are placed on the behavior of Netizens and any code of ethics evolves from the marketplace of ideas. A second he calls Authoritarian, in which Internet behavior is subject to legislation regulating what can and cannot be done with Internet information. Neither of these approaches are palatable to me or to Mr. Solove, who goes on to propose a compromise position, which would provide protection to people who wish to limit the spread of their personal information and yet also permit current protections of free speech. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this book--and perhaps the work of a single scholar--to present step-by-step methods for achieving compromise. Mr. Solove points to copyright law as a model for limiting use of personal information on the Internet, but this is a discussion that closes the book; it certainly deserves further expansion.
I was most interested in his discussion of anonymity in blogging. On the one hand, Mr. Solove argues, anonymity
"...allows people to be more experimental and eccentric without risking damage to their reputations. Anonymity can be essential to the presentation of ideas, for it can strip away reader biases and prejudices and add mystique to a text. People might desire to be anonymous because they fear social ostracism or being fired from their jobs. Without anonymity, some people might not be willing to express controversial ideas. Anonymity thus can be critical to preserving people's right to speak freely."
On the other hand, anonymity creates the opportunity to do harm without suffering any consequences. Mr. Solove cites the example of a MySpace account being established by an anonymous individual in a 12 year-old girl's name, using the 12 year-old's real contact information but portraying her as a sex worker. Thus, anonymity, poses another conundrum for the concept of personal privacy:
"Anonymity can preserve privacy by allowing people to speak freely without being publicly identified, yet it can undermine privacy by allowing people to more easily invade the privacy of others. As the tension between anonymity and accountability demonstrates, along with the tension between privacy and free speech, the choice isn't as simple as one between freedom and constraint. Rather it is a choice that involves freedom on both sides."
This is interesting to me because I do not blog anonymously, although many blogs I admire are written by anonymous authors. The reason why I chose not to blog anonymously was because I didn't want to have the burden of keeping a secret. If my co-workers or family members discovered my blog and suspected I was the author, how far would I take the deception? This was a question I didn't want to have to face; modern life is complicated enough for me without adopting alter egos. I realize I have relinquished an element of protection by revealing my name on my About Page but I suspect it would have been a very thin layer of protection indeed.
Reading other medical blogs reveals anonymity to be an imperfect shield. The experience of Flea, who closed his blog after his blogging identity was revealed publicly while he was defending a malpractice case, demonstrated that even anonymous blogs reveal enough information to expose the author. Apparently a number of medical bloggers took down posts from their blogs they felt would expose them to retribution, and some considered closing their blogs for good. Lucky for us, they did not, and blogs by health professionals continue to grow in number. Yet the anonymous blogs still suffer from the what if? of potential exposure.
If the benefit of anonymity is greater freedom of speech, the opportunity to share innovative ideas, and the chance to be the voice of protest, isn't it ironic that anonymous blogging has become tamer after the Flea incident? The idea of being less transparent when you are anonymous seems to ruin the ideal of anonymity. Yet this is exactly the kind of conundrum that the Internet era raises for notions of privacy: we have all sacrificed a degree of privacy in order to let our individual voices be heard, and even anonymity cannot guarantee our safety in this brave new world.
Daniel Solove has written an engrossing book which interrogates our traditional ideas about privacy, identity, and reputation, and undermines our faith in current legal protections. I recommend this book to all bloggers, anonymous or named, who wish to confront the degree of their Internet exposure.