Thursday, June 30, 2005

Privacy Norms in the Blogosphere

Daniel Solove (guest blogging at Balkinization) writes about privacy norms in the blogosphere, citing a case where a Korean woman who didn't clean up her dog's waste was subject to highly critical and invase online treatment. As one blogger described what happened:
Within hours, she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog-shit-girl) and her pictures and parodies were everywhere. Within days, her identity and her past were revealed. Request for information about her parents and relatives started popping up and people started to recognize her by the dog and the bag she was carrying as well as her watch, clearly visible in the original picture. All mentions of privacy invasion were shouted down with accusations of being related to the girl. The common excuse for their behavior was that the girl doesn't deserve privacy.

While the girl clearly behaved badly, those Korean netizens' behavior is even worse and inexcusably so. Abuse by the mob is indistinguishable from abuse by dictators yet they just don't see it in the heat of righteousness.
As Solove explains, the blogosphere can be brutal when enforcing social norms:
The dog-shit-girl case involves a norm that most people would seemingly agree to – clean up after your dog. Who could argue with that one? But what about when norm enforcement becomes too extreme? Most norm enforcement involves angry scowls or just telling a person off. But having a permanent record of one’s norm violations is upping the sanction to a whole new level. The blogosphere can be a very powerful norm-enforcing tool, allowing bloggers to act as a cyber-posse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital scarlet letters.


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. Thus, cyberspace norm police can be extremely dangerous – with an unprecedented new power and an underdeveloped system of norms to constrain their own behavior. Remember the famous saying about police surveillance: Who will watch the watchers? In the blogosphere, we might ask: Who will norm the norm police?
Jeff Jarvis, a dominant voice in the blogosphere, has often commented on the need to create a set of "blogger ethics," but he often fails to include norms of privacy within his taxonomy of ethical behavior.

A good starting point towards understanding the norms of privacy among bloggers is a new study by MIT Media Lab doctoral student Fernanda B. Viégas called "Bloggers' Expectations of Privacy and Accountability: An Initial Study". The abstract:
This article presents an initial snapshot, based on an online survey of weblog authors, of bloggers' subjective sense of privacy, and of their perceptions of liability. The findings suggest that the social norms of bloggers are emergent and self-imposed. When confronted with questions of defamation and legal liability, respondents in the survey expressed contradictions between their actions and their knowledge of how the technology works. They generally believed that they were liable for what they published online, although they were not concerned about the persistence of their entries. In general, bloggers do not feel as if they know their audiences. For the most part, blog authors have no control over who accesses their entries, and this inability to define their audiences leads them to make a number of assumptions about who their readers are.
Returning to Solove, he closes by calling for a more contextual approach to understanding privacy:
All the more reason why we need to rethink old notions of privacy. Under existing notions, privacy is often thought of in a binary way – something either is private or public. According to the general rule, if something occurs in a public place, it is not private. But a more nuanced view of privacy would suggest that this case involved taking an event that occurred in one context and significantly altering its nature – by making it permanent and widespread.
What he is describing is Helen Nissenbaum's theory of "privacy as contextual integrity," which I've discussed in detail here.

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