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November 20, 2007

Book treats Internet with wonder, criticism

The ways in which we know each other have changed. And reputation, the perception others have of us, has grown more vulnerable. According to Daniel Solove, author of the timely The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, the Internet is to blame. The Internet affords us tremendous opportunities for spreading information that were unthinkable years ago. But not all information should be spread.

Most people work carefully to construct public and private selves, relegating to the private sphere what they would rather not everyone know. The Internet blurs these lines between public and private. Take, for example, Solove’s example of the Washingtonienne. This young Congressional staff assistant clumsily wrote about her sexual affairs with high-powered Congressional staffers, taking little effort to conceal their identities. The problem: It turns out some of them paid her, and some are into kinky sex. Suddenly, everyone in the office knew it, inappropriate relationships were exposed, and millions had access to the blog through a hot link posted on a popular Beltway gossip website. One participant, a lawyer, sued the blogger for damages, claiming that private information was revealed in a public space in a way that was devastating to his reputation and caused irreparable damage. After all, nothing on the Internet ever goes away.

This is the problem Solove tries to work with. He examines the culture of the Internet, including the appeal of a space with no formal rules and free access. However, he points out that as the Internet continues to become an increasingly important fixture in everyday life, we must have laws that govern it and protect people. His solutions range from more practical, smaller-scale lawsuits to expanding the definition of damages to reflect the Internet’s unique power to store information permanently and link to it quickly.

While Solove’s book is important and certainly serves to cause readers to think about the impact of the Internet on their lives, it falls short of a truly sophisticated analysis of the web. This seems to be due in part to his infatuation with the Internet as well as his selection of examples. He mentions (and plugs) his blog more than a few times and verges on an embarrassing level of wonder at the capabilities of the Internet. He also often seems disappointed with the Internet’s “behavior,” as though it were a petulant adolescent son or daughter. But while Solove recommends ways to sanction and legally address this problematic behavior, he never asks why people are acting this way in the first place. He treats this behavior so seriously, solemnly analyzing the case of a blogger gone irresponsible. But in some ways it is a failed seriousness, because the behavior Solove uses in his examples is so superficial and adolescent that it is almost laughable.

It is so easy to lose perspective on the Internet, to forget that it is purely a medium and that the individual governs how it is used. Solove often finds himself lost in the gray area between the online and offline worlds, a terrain that is increasingly difficult to map. In the end, Solove’s book raises some questions it may not have intended: How important is our life online compared to our real lives? How seriously are we going to take the Internet?