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November 10, 2007

"Tip of the Week" - Read 'The Future of Reputation' by Daniel J. Solove

I"ve had the opportunity to read Daniel J. Solove's 'The Future of Reputation - Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet' and I have to say, it is both fascinating and sobering. To give you an idea of the content, I will reprint the publisher's blurb:

"What information about you is available on the Internet?  What if it's wrong and humiliating, or true but regrettable?  Will it ever go away?"

Teeming with chatrooms, online discussion groups, and blogs, the Internet offers previously unimagined opportunities for personal expression and communication.  But there's a dark side to the story.  A trail of information fragments about us is forever preserved on the Internet, instantly available in a Google search.  A permanent chronicle of our private lives - often of dubious reliability and sometimes totally false - will follow us wherever we go, accessible to friends, strangers, dates, employers, neighbors, relatives, and anyone else who cares to look.  This engrossing book, brimming with amazing examples of gossip, slander, and rumor on the Internet, explores the profound implications of the online collision between free speech and privacy."

For those who don't know the author, Dan Solove is an international authority on information privacy law, an associate professor at George Washington University Law School, and blogs at the very popular Concurring Opinions.

I had an opportunity to review the book (at the author's request) with the proviso I be completely honest...and honestly, anyone who uses the internet in any way shape or form, blogging, YouTube videos, social media and all sharing of information in digitized form needs to read this book.  And even if you don't use the internet, you can still be a victim of another's use of the internet to invade what you believe is private.

Given the fact that I will be forever 39, I did not grow up with the Internet as a cultural force in my life.  As such, my years of exploration and personal expression (I think they call that 'youth') are but memories and fading negatives in a bag somewhere.  I did not capture another's immature moments on my cell phone, upload them to my MySpace page, or keep of diary of my inner musings on Blogger. My use of the internet is very circumspect and approached with hopefully the wisdom of someone who has seen enough to understand discretion and consequences.

But what happens if you are the victim of digitized 'shaming' or gossip?  What if another's malicious, thinly disguised rantings about you forever alter your job opportunities, or reveal some personal quirks and medical condition that limit your relationship opportunities, information intimate and private never meant to be exposed but now spreading like wildfire worldwide?  Do you have recourse against the perpetrator? Did they really do something legally wrong?

The main thrust of the book is:  Can first amendment rights coexist with the right to privacy in this age of the Internet?  And to begin this argument one first has to decide the scope of the first amendment and 'what is privacy,' and to what degree, in fact, the two rights conflict.  And after that, can the law really offer practical protection?

This is not a dry read.  It is fast paced, peppered with relatable examples like the 'dog poop girl,' Jessica Cutler (the famous staff assistant to a senator who had a fling with a married attorney serving that senator), the Star Wars Kid, the New York City Subway Flasher, the Cell Phone Thief...and many more examples of cybercops, Internet vigilantism, and digitized Scarlet Letters, stories rich with details that are as as apalling and as mesmerizing as a fatal car crash.  You can't help but rubberneck.

I'm not sure we can rely on the law as a solution because the law has its limits.  We all know of examples where once the Internet 'bell' has been rung, it can't be unwrung. The law is reactive and can't undue the personal damage.  In my opinion, it comes down to our own morality and sense of decency and controls we place on ourselves and our children who have yet to understand long term consequences.  That may sound trite but I'm a huge believer in choices and consequences and the power each of us has.  Yet that does not address the malicious choices others make and their impact on us....or their first amendment right to do so.

There are no clear cut answers although the author poses some interesting thoughts. It is a book sure to stimulate serious debate amongst layperson and lawyer alike. But in the end we are responsible for ourselves and our uses of the internet. With every action taken we self-define free speech and privacy.

I highly recommend this book. 

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