Here’s the basic story: A woman and her dog are riding the Seoul subways. The dog poops in the floor. The woman refuses to clean it up, despite being told to by other passangers. Someone takes a picture of her, posts it on the Internet, and she is publicly shamed — and the story will live on the Internet forever. Then, the blogosphere debates the notion of the Internet as a social enforcement tool.
The Internet is changing our notions of personal privacy, and how the public enforces social norms.
Daniel Solove writes:
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.
And that is why the law might be necessary — to modulate the harmful effects when the norm enforcement system gets out of whack. In the United States, privacy law is often the legal tool called in to address the situation. Suppose the dog poop incident occurred in the United States. Should the woman have legal redress under the privacy torts?
If this incident is any guide, then anyone acting outside the accepted norms of whatever segment of humanity surrounds him had better tread lightly. The question we need to answer is: is this the sort of society we want to live in? And if not, what technological or legal controls do we need to put in place to ensure that we don’t?
I believe that, as complicated as it might be, the law must play a role here. The stakes are too important. While entering law into the picture could indeed stifle freedom of discussion on the Internet, allowing excessive norm enforcement can be stifling to freedom as well.
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. The dog-shit-girl would have been just a vague image in a few people’s memory if it hadn’t been for the photo entering cyberspace and spreading around faster than an epidemic. Despite the fact that the event occurred in public, there was no need for her image and identity to be spread across the Internet.
Could the law provide redress? This is a complicated question; certainly under existing doctrine, making a case would have many hurdles. And some will point to practical problems. Bloggers often don’t have deep pockets. But perhaps the possibility of lawsuits might help shape the norms of the Internet. In the end, I strongly doubt that the law alone can address this problem; but its greatest contribution might be to help along the development of blogging norms that will hopefully prevent more cases such as this one from having crappy endings.