The Ugly Persistence of Internet Celebrity
Many desperately try to garner online celebrity. They host You Tube channels devoted to themselves. They share their thoughts in blog postings and on social network sites. They post revealing pictures of themselves on Flickr. To their dismay though, no one pays much attention. But for others, the Internet spotlight finds them and mercilessly refuses to yield ground. For instance, in 2007, a sports blogger obtained a picture of a high-school pole vaulter, Allison Stokke, at a track meet and posted it online. Within days, her picture spread across the Internet, from message boards and sport sites to porn sites and social network profiles. Impostors created fake profiles of Ms. Stokke on social network sites, and Ms. Stokke was inundated with emails from interested suitors and journalists. At the time, Ms. Stokke told the Washington Post that the attention felt “demeaning” because the pictures dominated how others saw her rather than her pole-vaulting accomplishments.
Time’s passage has not helped Stokke shake her online notoriety. Sites continuously updated their photo galleries with pictures of Stokkes taken at track meets. Blogs boasted of finding pictures of Stokke at college with headings like “Your 2010 Allison Stokke Update,” “Allison Stokke’s Halloween Cowgirl Outfit Accentuates the Total Package,” and “Only Known Allison Stokke Cal Picture Found.” Postings include obscene language. For instance, a Google search of her name on a safety setting yields 129,000 results while one with no safety setting has 220,000 hits. Encyclopedia Dramatica has a wiki devoted to her (though Wikipedia has faithfully taken down entries about Ms. Stokke).
Ms. Stokke’s struggles exemplify the limitations of privacy tort law in the digital age. The public disclosure tort only applies to private matters, not to pictures taken in public at track meets or sorority parties. And it provides no relief on matters deemed newsworthy, which may be applicable given the persistent interest in Ms. Stokke over the past four years. The intrusion on seclusion claim, too, offers no help as it provides relief only when parties invade spaces deemed private. Without law’s help, Ms. Stokke and her family tried to take matters into their own hands but were outmatched by a leering online crowd. As soon as they asked sites to take the pictures down (and many did), others appeared. Perhaps Eric Schmidt had it right when he suggested that young people change their names to move beyond their digital pasts. Ms. Stokke’s persistent and unwanted online celebrity shows the continued importance of Daniel Solove’s book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.