Earlier this semester a media law professor asked me to prepare a lecture on privacy to present to his class while he was out of town on business. Subbing, for me, is an opportunity to delve into topics that might have changed since the last time I taught a particular class. So was the case concerning the four types of privacy invasion:
- Intruding on seclusion or solitude.
- Appropriating a person's name or likeness.
- Disclosing facts that are embarrassing but true.
- Placing a person in a false light.
Unless you have been the focus of an online news story, you may not have pondered how anonymity topples the intent of privacy law, allowing trolls to intrude on your peace of mind, reduce you to a caricature, disclose private facts, and place you in an unflattering light. Nevertheless, occasions occur in academe that demand our intervention, such as harassment in virtual worlds, which can include incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia and even avatar sexual assault, discussed in my February article in Inside Higher Ed.
In a 2007 article about Second Life, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I presented then-Vice President of Linden Lab Robin Harper with this hypothetical: “Say a university requested the identity of a Second Life resident in the investigation of a code violation that occurred on the university's virtual campus. Would the company comply?”
"We would not provide this information without a subpoena," she stated.
Subpoenas were part of the discussion in media law class because the current event on that day involved Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, secretly videotaped while engaging in intimate relations with another man. Soon after learning of the webcast, Clementi committed suicide by leaping from the George Washington Bridge. Clementi posted his suicide note — “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry" — on Facebook.
In “More Facebook Privacy Woes: Gay Users Outed To Advertisers,” Wired reports that researchers from Microsoft and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems discovered that advertisers can distinguish gay from straight users "just by looking at who’s clicking — even when that sexual preference is hidden."
However, the issue of social networks and mobile (sometimes hidden) media — allowing instant World Wide access — often concerns basic ignorance of computer programming. Indeed, early adopters associated with centers of teaching excellence, student affairs, and colleges of education and business introduced these applications into academe touting the potential for student engagement without analyzing the monetary motive embedded in the application or the potential for misuse.
That misuse is compounded not only by instant access to a global audience but an audience that also generates content via social networks, blogs, microblogs, smart phones and all manner of consumer gadgets programmed to disseminate content via terms of service that assign liability to users, protect predators’ identity and violate privacy of countless individuals on a daily basis.
A recent incident involves the Duke University sex PowerPoint in which an alumna sent to three friends a 42-slide presentation about her former sex partners — several of them athletes — describing their sexual prowess in privacy-violating detail. In time the presentation found its way to a Duke listserv and from there to blogs and then went “viral” (an apt term), resulting in mainstream media descending on the Duke campus to rehash the 2006 lacrosse case. Yes, there are aspects of this incident that may relate to feminism (as in why the hullabaloo over a woman’s exploits when men engage hourly in locker-room gossip?) or to Duke’s alleged scandalous culture; but the specter of ignorance about unintentional violation of privacy on Internet has gone largely unreported.
And that ignorance can thrust you and your students into the global Weblight if you forget for a nanosecond that social media were invented not to promote your own reality show or to engage student learners in the digital age but to make money via programming and targeted advertising at your and your institution’s personal expense.
Many students (and teachers and administrators, for that matter) believe that services such as e-mail or social networking are free because they are not billed monthly or charged subscription rates. In “Facing the Facebook,” one of the first articles to expose this myth, ethicist Christine Rosen told me, "It is ironic that the technologies we embrace and praise for the degree of control they give us individually also give marketers and advertisers the most direct window into our psyche and buying habits they've ever had."
This summer PC World reported in “How Will Facebook Make Money?” that Facebook has been trying to find the right balance between respecting privacy of users and using their data to make money. The article noted that Facebook is not "free" but "offers its service in exchange for the right to capture and collect mountains of demographic and preference data from its users," which "can be extremely valuable to marketers and advertisers because it is highly detailed and personal."
Students in the media law class were surprised to learn this. And if that is the case concerning juniors and seniors of an accredited journalism school at an institution of science and technology, then imagine the level of awareness by other majors not required to understand privacy invasion, liability and social responsibility (rather than social networking).
While everyone in class was familiar with and/or registered on Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and/or Second Life, only two students out of 60 that day had read the user agreements associated with those services.
Earlier this year, three Iowa State University colleagues and I did a content analysis of the number of prohibitions and limitations placed on users by corporate terms of service. Many such clauses deal with privacy and profit, a curious blend that defines our Internet age. Our study found that Facebook had the highest number of prohibitions with 74, followed by LinkedIn, 54; Second Life, 42; Google, 13; and Twitter, 7.
I ended media law class by asking students about their own online habits:
- Using chat, social networks, texting, virtual worlds, cell phones or blogs, have you or anyone you know ever intruded on another person’s seclusion or solitude? Response: About two-thirds of the class raised their hands.
- Using PhotoShop, InDesign, videography or other software, have you or anyone you know ever appropriated a person’s name or likeness and disseminated it to others for fun or any other reason? Response: About one-third of the class raised their hands.
- Using any of the previously mentioned applications or software, have you or anyone you know ever posted private facts about someone else, potentially embarrassing them? Response: Almost all raised their hands.
- Using any of the previously mentioned applications or software, have you or anyone you know ever placed a person in a false light intending to hurt or belittle that individual? Response: About half the class raised their hands.
In the discussion that ensued, we generally agreed that some popular online services inadvertently are reversing the intent of media law, protecting invaders of privacy from being identified by bestowing anonymity.
A few students were concerned that their social online habits would spill over to the workplace, harming their internships or future careers. One student wondered if privacy mattered at all anymore in as much as everyday online habits violated media law so often. It was a good question. I responded by quoting Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy in 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
Do we ever get over privacy invasion when it happens to us?
More than a decade ago PC World was among the first to report McNealy’s comment in a post that demanded “real privacy … as a matter of law” and warning about the continuing influence of “companies eager to improve their marketing efficiency or make billions selling personal data of questionable accuracy.”
Educators have a responsibility to remind students, colleagues and administrators about that, even if only subbing for a day.
Michael Bugeja, who directs the journalism school at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms, both published by Oxford University Press and both of which won the Clifford G. Christians Award for Research in Media Ethics.