Last year I meet with law professor Daniel Solove in Washington D.C. to talk about cybercivility and the law. Solove, who teaches at George Washington University Law School, is the author of the book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale 2007), which won the 2007 McGannon Award.
What compelled Solove to write The Future of Reputation? According to the preface:
“The idea for this book came to me soon after I began blogging in May 2005. I found blogging to be enthralling and invigorating. I was fascinated by the thrill of expressing my thoughts to a broad audience yet acutely aware of how people could be hurt by gossip and rumors spreading over the Internet…. When it comes to gossip and rumor on the Internet, however, the culprit is ourselves. We’re invading each other’s privacy, and we’re also even invading our own privacy by exposures of information we later come to regret. Individual rights are implicated on both sides of the equation. Protecting privacy can come into tension with safeguarding free speech, and I cherish both values.”
Solove argues that the current legal system doesn’t adequately address the challenges people face in an online environment, and proposes suggestions for change. It should be noted that he isn’t the only legal scholar to examine this issue – more recently others, notably Danielle Keats Citron, as well as Ann Bartow, Mary Ann Franks and Nancy S. Kim, have written about this as well. Yet outside traditional legal circles, Solove’s book is arguably perhaps the best known work on this topic.
In examining the role the law might take in addressing issues of reputation and privacy, Solove takes issue with both the purely libertarian and authoritarian approaches, proposing instead (see chapter 5) a “middle ground approach” that “would be to help shape the norms that govern the circulation of information. As people are discovering the profound power to disseminate information across the planet, they often continue with gossip as if there were no difference between real-space and cyberspace. The law should ensure that people better understand the dramatic difference between gossip offline and online.”
He regards the law as a critical component in stemming online hostility, noting that:
The law should expand its protection against irresponsible Internet postings, but only after disputes have been proven insoluble via informal means or alternative dispute resolution. In other words, the law should cast a wider net, yet have a less painful bite.
The primary goal of the law should be imparting a sense of responsibility on those who post online, deterring the spread of gossip and rumors in cyberspace, and creating incentives for parties to resolve their disputes informally.
This seminal book, comprised of chapters such as How the Free Flow of Information Liberates and Constrains Us, Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less, Shaming and the Digital Scarlet Letter, The Role of Law, Free Speech, Anonymity, and Accountability, and Privacy in an Overexposed World, is an important resource for anyone interested in participating in a discussion of cybercivility and the law’s role in resolving online conflicts.