The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet: Ackerman’s Review of Daniel Solove’s Newest Book on Privacy and the Internet

My slightly incented [FN1] take on Dan Solove’s most recent book: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.

by Ethan Ackerman

Unfortunately, I have to advise against beginning to read this book late on a Friday night on a crowded subway car full of antics-heavy party-goers if you also have a cellphone camera in your pocket. Why? It’s not the locale or the company, as Dan Solove begins his compelling second exploration of privacy on a crowded subway too – on the freshly dog-poop-messed floor of a Korean subway car, to be exact. No, it’s because readers that are most of the way through the book can appreciate the situation’s potential much better. Fortunately for my fellow Friday night riders (especially the guy who kept trying to play the jug on an empty bottle of malt liquor) I was already into Chapter Six that night. More than 130 pages in, I’d already heard tales of funnier, sadder, and more embarrassing moments recorded for public posterity. More importantly, I’d also been exposed to a significant chunk of Solove’s excellent thinking on the nuanced impact on individual privacy that comes from a massively participatory Internet – where everyone can be a content contributor, where anonymity and obscurity are likely fleeting but consequences may be lifelong, and where many users’ expectations and norms are still trying to adapt to previous technologies like cameras and newsprint.

It is this aspect of Solove’s book – the deep AND wide thinking about an individual’s interaction with the modern Internet – that moves the book out of the one-point-rigorous-analysis of an academic article and the semi-random anecdotal topicality of a blog post and into the category of critical (in the must-read sense) literature. Where Solove’s previous work tackled the pressing but somewhat solve-able problems that arose from individuals losing control of their personal information to government and commercial entities, this book tackles individuals’ loss of access and control of their information at the hands of other individuals – and, increasingly, by their own hand on blogs, social networking and image sharing sites of their own.

As Solove points out, this book is much more ambiguous and less proscriptive in its conclusions than his prior work. Reading the book is the best way to understand why Solove doesn’t just say “do more ‘x’,” or “make ‘y’ illegal on the Internet,” or “tech people about how to do ‘z’,” but Solove’s reasoned reluctance to throw out lots of solutions (and the nuance of the few ideas he does suggest) seem to be the main sticking point with reviewers so far. While having my own suspicions and opinions on what might and might not (and what definitely does and does not) work about modern privacy protections, I have to agree with Solove on one of his main premises – it is equal parts impossible and vital to avoid over-censorship or under-protection when trying to simultaneously protect individual autonomy, speech and privacy. I’d have to agree with what I think Solove’s ultimate aim is here – informing people and getting them to think more about privacy themselves. To put words in Solove’s mouth, if everyone is more informed and thinks about these issues themselves, not only will any ultimate solutions probably be better, but they will also perhaps be moot, as more people will have chosen the non-problematic action in the first place.

Chapter Three may prove particularly interesting for some of the marketing and economics-analysis readers of this blog. Despite the fact that it looks like a well-written lay discussion of just what makes communication different on the Internet (it even innocently starts out with anecdotes about the Washingtonienne scandal), Chapter Three is an excellent stealth lesson in communications theory, information theory, and even an economics lesson about reducing transactions costs and capturing the benefits and harms of previous externalities. Solove could have titled this chapter “the long tail phenomenon of online talk.” Though the chapter never says so in so many words, it discusses the impact of markedly reduced transaction costs of sharing AND recalling information. It uses network theory to explain how the connectedness of an information sharer still largely dictates information flow, and it also explores how the Internet has increased both the positive and negative externalities associated with information exchange.

My biggest beef is with a topic that pops up only briefly, once at the end of Chapter Two and again briefly in the conclusion: what might the future of privacy look like? More specifically, where are important trends taking us and in what ways may we consider privacy that we don’t now? Solove’s work dedicates page after page to the values and desires and social benefits that form our notions of privacy, and equally numerous pages to developments that alter and possibly enhance or diminish our privacy. But how about at least exploring alternate visions of what that may look like as time progresses? (Talk about reviewers wanting to have their cake and have it fed to them too.) The last two paragraphs of Chapter Two tease the reader with the idea that privacy may not even matter to future generations, a plausible idea that finds much support in the preceding pages. Yet, this meme is basically dropped until a brief resurrection in Chapter Eight, where it serves (in “Do people want privacy anymore“) as a foil for Solove’s convincing later argument that yes, people want privacy and they have a nuanced, non-binary view of privacy that changes, but does not necessarily diminish, with each technological change. How about a few pages on that dys/u-topian future where privacy doesn’t matter – the utopian one where social acceptance and factual accuracy negate any need to ‘hide’ embarrassing facts and early learning mistakes, or the dystopian one where our warts and peccadilloes are now universally surveilled and broadcast, but still have sanctions and social stigmas associated with them?

[FN1] If there is only one thing for an author worse than a poor book review, it is probably no book reviews. While this problem wouldn’t apply to The Future of Reputation, Dan Solove did a rather innovative thing to insure against it anyway. He offered free review copies to any mainstream blogger who would author a review, regardless of content. This review is in response to that generous offer.