Category: Privacy (Gossip & Shaming)


Seeking Justice Against Bad Business — Blogosphere Style

mob-justice2a.jpgA few weeks ago, Sony BMG suffered a public relations nightmare sparked by a blogger for its use of hidden DRM software in people’s computers. The latest company to face the wrath of the blogosphere is, an online merchant of cameras. From Online Media Daily:

The blogger . . . wrote on his blog, Digital Connection, that a sales rep tried to sell him accessories he didn’t want, and then when he refused, told him the camera he had ordered was out of stock–an experience that many other customers report having in customer reviews on Yahoo! Shopping and

The call became heated, the blogger said, when he told the rep he was going to write an article about the experience for his blog. “I told him I was planning to write an article about it. That’s all I said. Immediately the guy went ballistic on me,” he said in a telephone interview.

He posted an account of his experience on Digital Connection, and also mentioned that he had found the retailer through Yahoo! Shopping. As of Wednesday, still appeared on Yahoo! Shopping with a rating of four stars out of a possible five, but by Thursday, the site had been delisted.

He also posted a link to the story on a community-driven news site,, and the story ballooned from there. The blog, Digital Connection, which regularly receives roughly 5,000 unique visitors per day, garnered over 125,000 visits on Wednesday and Thursday.

Howard Baker, a manager with, said the business had suffered “millions of dollars” worth of damages in the last two days, apparently at the hands of consumer vigilantes who had read the Digital Connection post.

“In the last couple of days there was one disgruntled customer that posted a blog that caused thousands of people to come out of the woodwork and jam our Web site,” said Baker–citing viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and thousands of prank calls. . . .

There are also issues about whether’s online reviews had been gamed prior to this incident:

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Sex + Open Window = Photos + Internet

camera3a.jpgA simple equation of modern life. This story has an interesting set of ingredients: sex photos, privacy, email, websites, and free speech. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The University of Pennsylvania has charged at least one student with sexual harassment and misuse of electronic resources after he posted pictures on the Internet that show students apparently having sex while standing beside a large window in one of the university’s high-rise dormitories.

Pictures of the nude students were taken by more than one photographer. The images made the rounds through e-mail messages and various Web sites, and at least one of the photographers posted the pictures on his personal Penn Web site at the end of September. Pictures taken by a different photographer were posted, and widely viewed, on

Although the subjects’ faces are not clearly seen in the photographs, Penn students eventually found out who they were. At least one of the students in the pictures filed a sexual-harassment complaint with the university’s Office of Student Conduct, naming the student who posted the images on his Penn Web site.

Student-conduct officials completed their investigation early in November. They recommended that the student, identified only as a junior majoring in engineering, write a letter of apology, write an essay explaining why what he did was wrong, and be placed on disciplinary probation until graduation, a penalty that would create a permanent record of the incident.

Those coming to the defense of the student note that the couple was having sex in public view and wasn’t entitled to privacy and that the University’s attempt to sanction the student was chilling of free speech.

According to another article, the University subsequently dropped the charges against the student, but still noted that it strongly disapproved of the student’s behavior.

Thanks to Orin Kerr for pointing out this story.


I wonder what Dan Markel thinks of this

Private use of shaming punishments:

Tasha Henderson got tired of her 14-year-old daughter’s poor grades, her chronic lateness to class and her talking back to her teachers, so she decided to teach the girl a lesson.

She made Coretha stand at a busy Oklahoma City intersection Nov. 4 with a cardboard sign that read: “I don’t do my homework and I act up in school, so my parents are preparing me for my future. Will work for food.”

I suspect that many of the same arguments apply here that might be used against state shaming punishments. (For some of them, see Dan’s paper).

On the other hand, it sounds awfully effective. Perhaps I should write up a proposal for the next faculty meeting suggesting that we implement this. A few students marching in front of the library wearing “I didn’t do the reading” sandwich boards would go a long way towards improving class participation, no?


Teaching Information Privacy Law

privacy1a.jpgThis post was originally posted on PrawfsBlawg on May 10, 2005. I have made a few small edits to this post.

For the law professor readers of this blog, especially newer professors (or professors-to-be) who are still figuring out the courses they want to teach, I thought I’d recommend information privacy law as a course you might consider teaching. (I have a casebook in the field, so this is really a thinly-disguised self-plug.)

Information privacy law remains a fairly young field, and it has yet to take hold as a course taught consistently in most law schools. I’m hoping to change all that. So if you’re interested in exploring issues involving information technology, criminal procedure, or free speech, here are a few reasons why you should consider adding information privacy law to your course mix:

1. It’s new and fresh. Lots of media attention on privacy law issues these days. Students are very interested in the topic.

2. Lively cases and fascinating issues abound. There’s barely a dull moment in the course. Every topic is interesting; there is no rule against perpetuities to cover!

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Internet Shaming Redux: The Case of the Stolen Cell Phone

cellphoneshame2.jpgThis post was originally published at PrawfsBlawg on August 31, 2005.

A story from Wired describes the latest Internet shaming episode:

A New York stock clerk who had his camera phone swiped from his car this month says he was able to peer into the life of the gadget’s new owner. The thief evidently didn’t realize the copious photos and videos he was taking with the hot phone were accessible through a web account. . . .

Because the camera phone can only hold a limited number of images, Sprint lets subscribers upload photos from the device to a web account. “I decided to go and check out the web space and see if there were any pictures uploaded to it, and he had taken almost 40 pictures and five movies and uploaded them all,” says Clennan [the theft victim].

Most of the images show the same young man, flexing for the camera in various states of dress, kissing a young woman, posing with apparent friends and family members, and generally having a good time with a new toy.

When Clennan checked the account’s e-mail outbox, he found the new owner had forwarded some of the photos to a particular Yahoo e-mail account.

Clennan sent his own message: “Like to steal cell phones and use them to take pics of yourself and make videos…. HA! (G)uess what pal … (I) have every pic you took and the videos. I will be plastering the town with pics of your face.”

The article continues:

Far from chastised, the man fired back a taunting one-line note, apparently with his own name in the header, dropping the name of a woman Clennan had been dating, and who’d sent text messages to the stolen phone.

Clennan retaliated by posting the story and some of the photos to a Long Island web board, where it immediately began gathering the kind of interest that accumulates to photo-driven internet phenomena like the Korean Dog Poop Girl and the New York subway flasher.

Urged on by netizens, Clennan says he finally took the trove of evidence to the Suffolk County, New York, police last week, and they’re considering filing petty theft charges in the case. “The detective actually laughed,” says Clennan. . . .

Contacted by e-mail, the camera phone’s new owner told Wired News he didn’t steal the device, but merely found it on a street corner. The young man says he’s 16 years old, and Wired News has elected not to report his name.

The case provides another instance of Internet shaming to discuss and debate. In recent posts, I’ve been critical of Internet shaming. One of the problems with this incident is that the facts are still unsettled about how the teenager acquired the camera.

In this case, the theft victim placed online many pictures of the person — as well as images of other people who appeared in the pictures. These pictures were then copied by netizens, morphed into “Wanted” posters, and plastered about the Internet. I’ve included an example in this post, but have blocked out the person’s face and name, both of which appear in the original version. I checked the website where the theft victim placed the photos and here’s his latest update:



The pictures, however, still float around the Internet. Despite the theft victim’s change of heart, it’s too late to take the pictures back.


Of Privacy and Poop: Norm Enforcement Via the Blogosphere

Dog Poop Girl 4.jpgThis post was originally posted at Balkinization on June 30, 2005.

By way of BoingBoing comes this fascinating incident in Korea. A young woman’s dog pooped inside a subway train. Folks asked her to clean it up, but she told them to mind their own business. A person took photos of her and posted them on a popular Korean blog. Another blogger, Don Park, explains what happened next:

Within hours, she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog-shit-girl) and her pictures and parodies were everywhere. Within days, her identity and her past were revealed. Request for information about her parents and relatives started popping up and people started to recognize her by the dog and the bag she was carrying as well as her watch, clearly visible in the original picture. All mentions of privacy invasion were shouted down with accusations of being related to the girl. The common excuse for their behavior was that the girl doesn’t deserve privacy.

While the girl clearly behaved badly, those Korean netizens’ behavior is even worse and inexcusably so. Abuse by the mob is indistinguishable from abuse by dictators yet they just don’t see it in the heat of righteousness.

I posted a while ago about how norm enforcers can be valuable in promoting social norms of etiquette and civility. These norm enforcers police norms for free, sometimes even doing so at a cost to themselves. According to the article I discussed, the “tendency to sanction breaches of social norms is the key to human cooperation.”

But norm-enforcement also has a dark underbelly. As Richard McAdams argues, certain norms are unnecessary and undesirable; and even desirable norms can be enforced to an undesirable degree. See Richard H. McAdams, The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms, 96 Mich. L. Rev. 338, 412 (1997).

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?

Some commentators to Don Park’s blog contend that the behavior of these cyber norm-enforcers is justifiable because that the woman was in public and thus had no privacy:

The initial blogger. Do I think he had every right to post her? Yep. She was in public, and it really doesn’t matter if she was in front of 100 or 1,000,00 people, she was willing to act that way in the public sphere. So an upset person chose to mention how upset he was to others. I agree with the earlier poster’s mention of a college newspaper doing something along the same lines: it is a minor issue, but sometimes we have power to change behavior with our voices. In this case, I’d bet that many other people are suddenly more conscious of their dog poop and are more likely to serve the public good by cleaning it up.

Yet another commentator writes:

I really don’t think it matters that it came out on the internet. It happened in a public place so it is excusable to discuss it in a public forum. This isn’t going to ruin her life, it might make her clean up her dog’s mess for a month though while the story goes around. We are a fickle bunch and she will be forgotten before the end of the season.

But this comment is wrong. She will not be forgotten. That’s what the Internet changes. Whereas before, she is merely remembered by a few as just some woman who wouldn’t clean up dog poop, now her image and identity are eternally perserved in electrons. Forever, she will be the “dog-shit-girl”; forever, she will be captured in Google’s unforgiving memory; and forever, she will be in the digital doghouse for being rude and inconsiderate.

Consider the famous incident involving the “Star Wars Kid,” a sad tale of a nerdy 15-year kid who filmed himself waving a golf ball retriever around as if it were a lightsaber. To tease him, some other kids digitized it and posted on the Internet along with his name. It was downloaded by millions around the world, and new versions of it quickly emerged replete with special effects and music. Forever, this person will be known as the Star Wars Kid. There’s even a Wikipedia entry for him!

Another tale involves involves a person whose private email to her friends was spread around cyberspace. James Grimmelmann has a wonderful essay about this email incident and social norms on LawMeme.

The easy reaction is to steel ourselves and chalk it up to life in the digital age. But that’s just giving up. The stakes are too high to do that. Consider the thoughts of another commentator to Don Park’s blog:

It reminds me of the struggles that editors face when deciding about what pictures to run in the newspaper. Those editors need to make a judgement call based on the value of the picture and its relevance to the story. But here, the person was outraged and ran the picture of the girl. That’s totally different. It shows the dangerous flip side of citizen media. Moral outrage is easy to flame. But the consequences can be mortal. Will the ease in inciting moral outrage create a mob driven police state? It may be when the powerful realize how they can use citizen “reporters,” to influence mobs. That seems to be one of the real dangers of citizen journalism. . . .

Compounding the problem is the fact that the norms of the blogosphere are just developing, and they are generally looser and less well-defined than those of the mainstream media. Thus, cyberspace norm police can be extremely dangerous – with an unprecedented new power and an underdeveloped system of norms to constrain their own behavior. Remember the famous saying about police surveillance: Who will watch the watchers? In the blogosphere, we might ask: Who will norm the norm police?

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.