By Daniel J. Solove
Long Story Short: This book discusses the boundaries–social and legal–between privacy and publicity, particularly at the point where the Internet has the potential to expose details to millions of people.
Why I Chose This Book: I’d heard somewhere about the book The Offensive Internet but decided–based solely on the Amazon.com page–that it would be too scholarly for me to read and review for this Reading Club project. The Future of Gossip came up on that page as another suggestion, and it was easy to get at the library, so I went with that.
The Book’s Strengths: The book is pretty short (I’m not considering that a strength or weakness) mostly because it is so straightforward. The author identifies and explains many of the legal codes and mainstream media practices that cover the conflicts that arise between the individual and public reputation, and makes it easy to understand the perspectives behind why certain laws were established and why courts have made the decisions they did. It’s also peppered with anecdotes from the current Internet age as well as examples of defamation/privacy violation complaints/accusations that have occurred in previous decades. The writing style is very accessible, too, and it doesn’t overwhelm you with information or dense passages of texts.
The Book’s Weaknesses: It’s a bland book, with too many anecdotes and explanations and no real insight about the coming conflicts between our personal and public selves. It read like a report on what is happening <em>now</em>, except that “now” has a 2007 publication date and Facebook makes the book’s pages as just having introduced the News Feed. An interesting report, I guess, but with the exception of listing the various statutes and legal codes by name for the reader, I could have found as many anecdotes online to share, too, and the anecdotes weren’t that shocking or exciting or revelatory. It’s not that it’s a dated book–that is, it is a dated book but only in a trivial way, because the anecdotes and Exciting Internet Events that Solove includes are pretty universal examples of what can go wrong, even if nobody uses Friendster anymore. It’s that it doesn’t really make you think very hard about the implications of oversharing online. And it’s not like these past four years have made us so much more knowledgeable/cynical/crafty about the construction of our online personas; more people probably have given more thought to how the information they post online can haunt us, but the book leaves me with a sense of so now what? The recommendations he makes for how to alter specific laws and/or application of current laws to accommodate privacy without stifling free speech are tossed in at the end with no philosophical expounding upon, and the social recommendations that he makes–we’ll all just have to be more respectful but that’s going to be hard–I could have made, and I have no philosophy or law experience at all.
Perhaps I am the wrong audience for the book, and people versed in privacy law and Internet topics would take away from it a much richer experience, but–and I am going to risk making myself look foolish here–I don’t see how. If it’s just a quick reference for people to turn to when they are tackling bigger issues, that’s one thing, but in the Preface of the hardcover copy, he writes that “The purpose of the book is to explore in depth a set of fascinating yet very difficult questions and to propose some moderate compromises in the clash between privacy and free speech.” I found no in-depth discussion of anything. In the Conclusion he writes, “The questions are immensely complex, and there are no easy answers.” I agree with him; privacy versus freedom is complex, but I didn’t see any of this complexity or nuance in the book itself. It’s just an overview. It identifies conflicts without really fully exploring them.
What Should Have Happened: I think the book should have ditched most of the anecdotes in favor of wanton pontificating and assertion-making. I’d much rather have heard more of his opinions than facts, although I understand that the author’s goal may have been to keep it basic and not go off on tangents. I also think that there should have been conversation about global attitudes and foreign laws about free speech, copyright, and privacy, instead of sticking with the U.S. court history, especially because one of the Big Dangers Solove kept warning the audience of was that what unsavory details once stayed within a small group of people can be broadcast worldwide and recorded permanently. If the Internet is making all of us interconnected, then we need to think about what happens when conflicting laws and customs about privacy and freedom get into the mix.
Short Story Shorter: I wish I’d read the other book. I might still. I’ll keep you posted.