But this comment is inaccurate. She will not be forgotten. That's what the Internet changes. Whereas before the girl would have been remembered merely by a few as just some woman who wouldn't clean up dog poop, now her image and identity are eternally preserved in electrons. Forever, she will be the "dog poop girl"; forever, she will be captured in Google's unforgiving memory; and forever, she will be in the digital doghouse for being rude and inconsiderate. The dog poop girl's behavior was certainly wrong, but we might not know the whole story behind the incident to judge her appropriately. And should people's social transgressions follow them on a digital rap sheet that can never be expunged?
The easy reaction is to steel ourselves and chalk it up to life in the digital age. But the stakes are too high for that. We perform an enormous range of activities in public. Do we want to live with the risk that people can snap our picture wherever we are and put it up on the Internet? We expose a litany of personal information as we go about our daily lives. Do we want it to be permanently posted online for the world to see? Consider the thoughts of another commentator to Don Park's blog:
Similarly, Howard Reingold, author of Smart Mobs, a book about the blistering speed of modern communications, observes: "The shadow side of the empowerment that comes with a billion and a half people being online is the surveillance aspect. . . . We used to worry about big brother — the state — but now of course it's our neighbors, or people on the subway."
Compounding the problem is the fact that the norms of the blogosphere are just developing, and they are generally looser and less well defined than those of the mainstream media. The author of an article in the Columbia Journalism Review declares: "We've seen blogs act as media or political watchdogs, but not as aggressive watchdogs of individual violations of social norms. So this seems like a notable step. And, as with the emergence of 'citizen' journalism, it is an undefined and unregulated step in a cyberworld that lacks boundaries and standards." Thus cyberspace norm police can be extremely dangerous — with an unprecedented new power and an underdeveloped system of norms to constrain their own behavior.
Generation X. Generation Y. These are yesterday's labels. They don't really capture who we are today. We are Generation Google.
Google is a search engine, a website that combs through the Internet looking for all other Web pages that contain the term you're searching for. Without search engines, the Internet would be an endless expanse of digital babble, and finding any particular piece of information would be akin to locating a specific grain of sand in the Sahara Desert. Since its creation in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two students at Stanford University, Google has quickly risen to become the leading search engine.14 It can search billions of Web pages in just a fraction of a second. Google presents search results in a rank ordering calculated to put the most relevant results at the top of the list.
Want to know about a person? No need to hire a private investigator. Just go to http://www.google.com, type a name into the search box, hit the search button . . . and presto, you've got a list of Web pages with information about that individual. Google is so popular it has become a verb. To "google" someone doesn't mean anything kinky — instead, it means to do a search for his or her name on the Web. Everybody's googling. People google friends, dates, potential employees, long-lost relatives, and anybody else who happens to arouse their curiosity.
Many of us today — especially children and teenagers — are spending more of our lives on the Internet. And the more we're online, the more likely details about our lives will slip out into cyberspace. This risk is increased because it is not just we ourselves who might leak information — data about us can be revealed by our friends or enemies, spouses or lovers, employers or employees, teachers or students . . . and even by strangers on the subway. We live in an age when many fragments of information about our lives are being gathered by new technologies, horded by companies in databases, and scattered across the Internet. Even people who have never gone online are likely to have some personal information on the Internet.
Details about your private life on the Internet can become permanent digital baggage. For example, a story in the Boston Globe Magazine discusses the plight of a thirty-four-year-old professional named Michael.15 Michael was briefly in prison when he was a juvenile. While in prison, he wrote a few articles about it in specialized journals. These articles now come back to haunt him. They are pulled up anytime somebody does a Google search for his name. Michael is single, and his Google baggage travels with him on most dates. On the first or second date, most women start interrogating Michael about his stint in prison. As Michael explains: "When you meet someone . . .
you don't say, 'I had an affair one time,' or 'I was arrested for DUI once,' or 'I cheated on my taxes in 1984.' " Even when people don't ask him about his past, Michael's digital skeletons continue to affect him. Whenever there's an awkward silence in a conversation, Michael thinks the worst: "Instead of thinking, 'Was I curt last week?' or 'Did I insult this political party or that belief?' I have to think about what happened when I was 17." In one instance, Michael was interviewed several times for a job when, suddenly, the potential employer stopped calling him. "[Michael's] hunch: Someone Googled him.
But the worst part is, he'll never know." Michael's problem is not that he is embarrassed by his past or wants to escape from it. Rather, he resents having to constantly justify himself and explain his past. Worse still, he is rarely afforded the opportunity to explain.
From the dawn of time, people have gossiped, circulated rumors, and shamed others. These social practices are now moving over to the Internet, where they are taking on new dimensions. They transform from forgettable whispers within small local groups to a widespread and permanent chronicle of people's lives. An entire generation is growing up in a very different world, one where people will accumulate detailed records beginning with childhood that will stay with them for life wherever they go. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne was forced by her colonial New England village to wear a scarlet letter A to represent her sin of adultery. The Internet is bringing back the scarlet letter in digital form — an indelible record of people's past misdeeds. One commentator to Don Park's post about the dog poop girl said it best: "Right or wrong, the internet is a cruel historian." The Internet is indeed a cruel historian. Who wants to go through life forever known as the dog poop girl?
In this book, I discuss a litany of instances like the dog poop girl, in which rumors, gossip, or shaming on the Internet have had poisonous effects. I argue that we must protect privacy to ensure that the freedom of the Internet doesn't make us less free. But to do so, we must rethink our notions of privacy.
We must also balance the protection of privacy against freedom of speech. And we must find a workable way for the law to achieve these goals. I shall propose ideas for how these goals can be achieved.
The book has two parts. In the first part I discuss how rumors, gossip, and shaming are being transformed when they take place online. In Chapter 2 I explore the new ways we're disseminating information — through blogs, social network sites, and other means. Increasingly, this information consists of personal details about people's lives. It is far too simplistic to conclude that this is good or bad — it is both. We rely upon information about people to help us assess their reputations. We want to give people some control over their reputations, but not so much that they can deceive or manipulate us. The rapid spread of information on the Internet makes establishing this delicate balance all the more challenging.
Chapter 3 is about gossip. There's a voyeur in all of us, and we often have a gluttonous curiosity about the lives of others. Gossip isn't inherently good or evil — it has its virtues as well as its vices. On the Internet, however, gossip is being reshaped in ways that heighten its negative effects and make its sting more painful and permanent.
In Chapter 4 I explore a related practice of spreading information — shaming.
Like gossip, shaming has long served as a common practice to keep people from violating society's rules and norms. Shaming helps maintain order and civility. Yet when transplanted to the Internet, shaming takes on some problematic dimensions.
After examining in Part I the good and bad aspects of spreading personal information over the Internet, I turn in Part II to the question of what ought to be done about the problem. What makes the issues so complex is that there are important values on both sides. Protecting people's privacy sometimes can be achieved only by curtailing other people's free speech. Some commentators and lawmakers are quick to take sides, strongly favoring privacy or free speech.
The difficulty is that we often want both. Unlike many conflicts, in which we can readily pick a side, there is no clear winner in the battle between privacy and free speech. Both are essential to our freedom.
In Chapter 5 I discuss how the law can strike a balance between allowing people to express themselves online and preventing them from revealing personal information about others. The difficulty is finding the proper role for the law to play. Too many legal restrictions or lawsuits will chill speech and stifle freedom on the Internet. On the other hand, if the law is held at bay, there will be little to prevent people from injuring others by releasing their secrets to the world. The law must take a middle path, but there's another treacherous pitfall in the road: the law can be slow and costly. In this chapter, I suggest a way for law to address the problems productively yet with moderation.
I turn in Chapter 6 to the tension between privacy and free speech. Freedom of speech is a fundamental value, and protecting it is of paramount importance.
Yet, as I argue, privacy often furthers the same ends as free speech.
If privacy is sacrificed at the altar of free speech, then some of the very goals justifying free speech might be undermined. Current law, unfortunately, tends to side too frequently with free speech, leaving privacy underprotected.
I propose a way to balance privacy and free speech that enables them to coexist without making undue trade-offs.
The focus of Chapter 7 is privacy. One of the challenges we face in today's exposed world is that information is rarely completely hidden. Many of our comings and goings occur in public places, where technology enables them to be more easily recorded. We often share private information with others who might betray us and spread it online. Is it possible to protect privacy in public? Once we've shared information with others, can it still be private? How much control ought we to have over our personal information? In this chapter I explore these questions and propose a new way of understanding privacy, one that is more fitting to the world we live in.
I conclude the book by examining in Chapter 8 what the law can and cannot do. As important as it is to explore law's potential, it is equally important to recognize the law's limitations. The law alone cannot be the cure-all. While the law can take a more active role in preventing people from revealing the secrets of others, it will have great difficulty in stopping people from exposing details about themselves. Although the law might not be the answer in this situation, there are other ways to make headway in addressing the problem. Nevertheless, any solution will be far from perfect, as we are dealing with a social tapestry of immense complexity, and the questions of how to modulate reputation, gossip, shame, privacy, norms, and free speech have confounded us for centuries. These age-old questions, however, are taking on new dimensions in today's digital era, and it is imperative that we grapple with them anew.
From The Future of Reputation © Daniel J. Solove, excerpted with permission from Yale University Press.