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July 11, 2005


Recently a friend of mine let another friend crash at her place, and he rewarded her generosity by looking through her computer files. When she figured out SOMEONE had been at them, and taxed him with it, he admitted it quite readily and said "After all, you didn't have them password protected". She gave him the boot and told him he was never welcome in her house again.

Then, after some thought, she published his name on her blog, and what he'd done: she decided this was appropriate, since she and he are both part of a social network of people who do routinely let people they don't know especially well crash in their living spaces - and he by his own behavior no longer deserved to be part of that network.

Only... well, I know my friend and trust her: but the fact is, under these circumstances, you only have the friend's word for it that this is what happened.

What I am trying to say, I think, is that the Internet presents all the disadvantages of vigilantism, with virtually none of the risks for the vigilante.

Yes. It's bad.

How do the normal rules governing photographs of people apply? My understanding is that in many, but not all, cases it is necessary to get a "model release" before publishing a photo of someone. Does this provide a basis for some sort of sensible rules about this?

The case you cite, SH, has fewer real-world consequences for the target than, say, the Laura Krishna plagiarism sting published by , which made me pretty sad. Kushner eventually admitted he'd gone overboard.

I do think that this sort of thing is increasingly going to be a problem, and no, I don't have any smart suggestions for what to do about it.

Oh, hell! I thought I closed that tag.

Seb: I think the only thing that will work is for people to develop a serious sense of what's right and wrong, as far as publishing stuff about other people, and for their peers to be as serious about shaming people who cross those lines as they are about people who don't clean up after their dogs. The only alternatives I can see involve censorship.

The cases of the file browsing 'friend' and dog-shit-girl are different in that (1) there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for an act conducted in a public space, and (2) pictures provide a much higher standard of evidence than mere blog posts.

Obviously pictures can be faked, but faking requires much more effort and is often detectable. If someone were to post a fake picture that reflected poorly on the subject there are civil (and possibly criminal) penalties. It might not be worth it to the victim, but the mere threat helps to discourage misbehavior. Slander and libel laws no doubt apply to blog postings, so the real threat of harm comes primarily from anonymous postings or in cases where the victim does not have the ability to seek legal recourse.

Obnoxious behavior is encouraged by the anonymity of crowds, and social shaming like the dog-shit-girl case helps to remove that anonymity. The same anonymity of crowds applies to the would-be shamers, but the effectiveness of shaming is inversely proportional to the anonymity of the shamer. Unattributable postings are less effective than attributable ones.

The real problem arises when simple shaming by exposure morphs into harassment. It looks like dog-shit-girl's case made that transition, which is unambiguously bad. Again, there is legal recourse, but simply being able to sue is not really enough.

Frankly, I think social pressure is often a good thing, since it helps maintain a certain level of decency. Social pressure ought to be brought to bear on those who transition from exposure of bad acts into harassment, and that may be the most effective way of discouraging the worst excesses of shaming.

The more serious problem arises when social pressure is used in cases where the act is not public, or is socially unacceptable despite being harmless. Imagine homophobes waiting outside gay bars to photograph patrons leaving, for example. Social counterpressure brought against the 'phobes is unlikely to work, and the damage is already done by the time the counterpressure starts.

Apologies for rambling. I better stop here without trying to tie my rambles together into a coherent point, since I'm pretty sure I can't do that :-)

I'm on the fence about cybershaming. Here's an extreme case to illustrate where this can go (has gone). There's a gay blogger who's a bit notorious in New York for skewering the excesses of the gay lifestyle (generally, although offensive, he's very funny). Once, however, he had gone into a sauna (i.e., sex club), taken photos of the patrons there, and posted them on his blog.

He wasn't trying to "shame" them, per se, (after all, he was in the same club), but he crossed the line IMO in that he can't control the damage such an outing might cause to some of those people.

I know the police use similar tactics in some cities with folks who hire prostitutes. In general, it's bad policy and will lead to all sorts of escalating retaliations.

Interesting topic, Sebastian.

I'm not willing to say definitively that this is a 'bad thing' because I think it points to a shift in culture (or society, not sure which would be better here) prompted by the internet. I think privacy is one of those rights that may be called into question as it becomes less and less defensable. Which is not to say that I would not be upset to have my own privacy violated, so much as to say that privacy itself could become an archaic concept as information technologies proliferate.

David Brin has written extensively about this, and has argued that transparency could be a good thing. Eric Hughes and other Cypherpunks (or 'crypto anarchists'--though not in the same sense as 'crypto-fascist) take the opposite tack and argue for strong encryption. I lean towards the latter, but find both sides interesting and productive for extrapolation.

The other big issue implicated in the open/closed information society is the question of ownership versus access, but that is a whole 'nother huge subject worth its own post.

Just out of curiousity, how come we got a "...basically told them to f[***]..." in that article, but no "...she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog-s[***]-girl)..."?

there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for an act conducted in a public space,

This is oversimplified, I think. Is a locker room at the gym a public space? A restroom? Surely we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in those places.

I don't think privacy is an either/or proposition. There are degrees, and the internet makes violations of privacy potentially much more damaging than they were before.

It's wrong because it's rude. The response to rudeness is never more rudeness, much less the nuclear rudeness of mass-communications 'shaming.'

The way to curb it is like all other rudeness: deplore it politely when confronted with it, decline to engage in it or encourage those who do (by viewing or linking to their pages), and raise your children to understand why such responses are wrong.

I'm with Brin on this one. Cyber-exposes are inevitable and they will help more than they harm. The flip side of dog-shit-girl is Lyndie England.

This is the reality of the global village - we get worldwide gossip about even the lowliest denizens. And that's not such a horrible thing. We will probably, over time, develop some worldwide, or at least English-speakers-wide, mores. That would relieve a lot of stress on our poor overloaded court system. And it might just bring about a return of basic manners and common decency. E.g., however exaggerated the treatment this girl got, I betcha everyone involved will be more diligent about cleaning up their trash.

The real problems, as noted above, are 1) fake exposes, and 2) anonymous outers. Norm-forming will degenerate into pranking if there is no way to shame the fakers. But my guess is that the next generation will automatically discount anything not presented with guarantees of identity. What those guarantees will look like, I have no idea. But there will be a demand for them, and somebody will figure out how to fill it.

For now, just bear in mind that you're in a fishbowl.

interesting post Sebastian.

Untimately it's a fad. It makes the cyberhammer feel better for a moment but the target obviously doesn't have any significant sense of shame (or they wouldn't be doing it to begin with) so there's no payoff.

IMHO it is extremely rude and bad-mannered to "cybershame" unless it is intended as a warning (against a scam or something).

Like using swearwords in public you cannot do a lot against it unfortunately, except stating that it is wrong. Apart from the over-the-top reaction to a minor offense it leads to gossip, distortion and lies and quite often it is hardly possible for someone to defend themselves against it.

In the case of Jes' friend: why post the name? Why not tell the story as a warning without names? People should be aware that it might happen (someone going through private files), but you never know for sure that he was the only person who would do such a thing anyway.

Though I must admit that I might be more oldfashioned than most people about this. I also refused to watch the Clinton video's because I felt that making them public was in extremely bad taste and an unnessecary breach of his privacy.

Actually I think a better deterrent would be for her to have eat the dog poop as punishment. if word got out about that, it would stop it cold.

To me, this is analogous to some of the conceptual problems I have with public security cameras-- in public, you have no expectation of privacy, but there is a big difference between people seeing you at the store, the cleaners, and the Starbucks, and one person monitoring you continuously as you go to each place. Likewise, when you let your dog take a dump on a train, you are in public and can't cry "privacy," but there is a big difference between some people on a train seeing you and everyone in the world seeing you. There is no clear answer to problems like this, because there is no brightline distinction between these different types of non-privacy.

I'm pretty liberal, even though I'm supposedly old enough to know better, and I definitely think most of what I see as the liberal-led social gains of the last 50-odd years are a good thing.

But one of the things I lament is the loss of the sense of public decency and the ability of a community to enforce or inform general standards of said decency. (Obviously when I speak of the loss of general public decency I'm speaking of hte small things. A society in which cursing is frowned on but black people are considered second class citizens is not a decent society.) So I've got to say that I'm in favour of a bit of public shaming, whether online or in the 3D world, as a way for a society to, at least in part, self govern itself.

A couple of stories, both about London, with the second being related to the bombings (apologies in advance for the length):

1) London's Gay Pride Festival was a few weeks ago, and some friends of mine went on the march. Towards the end of the route, there was a group of crackpot fundamentalist "Christians" of the type quite common in the US (it would seem), shouting anti-gay crapola at the passing marchers. (This sort of wierdness is very uncommon over here, as far as I can tell.)

While some of the marchers got angry, and even verbally aggressive, a big group of them, including my friends, took a different tack: they led a chant that turned the bigots' twisted morality on its head. "Shame on you", they chanted for several minutes, with others quickly and enthusiastically joining in. They knew they had the moral highground, and so they occupied it. And it worked. Not that it convinced the bigots that they were wrong, but it reminded those who were being abused that they were in the right, and it reframed the "conversation". It put it on its proper moral kilter.

Story 2) Two days ago I was in Hyde Park, London, and a man started shouting at some Muslims: "Get a passport! Get a passport!" Of course, the Muslims as British as he was, but that's actually the point in some ways: the guy was trying to indicate that they (the Muslims) aren't properly British; they're all some monolithic, evil-minded foreign interloper.

So put yourself in my place. What do you do? Do you sit there quietly, hoping it will all go away? Do you politely tell the aggressor that you don't like his line of reasoning, and explain to him why? Do you do this quietly, so only he can hear? Or do you do it in front of everyone else, to make it damn clear to him and everyone else that this sort of thing is unacceptable here? And if he tells you to eff off and threatens to kick your ass, do you then get cybernetic on him and post his picture online under the heading "Racist, divisive bastard"?

What do you think?

Katharina Blum comes to mind, with the internet instead of the tabloids.

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