Congressional efforts to create a federal shield law for journalists have raised, not for the first time, the question of just who is a journalist. If we give “journalists” the right to refuse to testify to protect anonymous sources, does that right apply to everyone with an Internet connection and some Web space? Or any guy with a mimeograph machine in the basement? How about someone whose only tools are a fax machine and a mailing list?
While lawyers and lawmakers wrestle with these issues, another cyber-issue has bubbled to the surface in South Korea: the rights of bloggers to enforce the law.
As described in an article in today’s Washington Post, it all started when a woman recently refused to clean up her dog’s excrement on a subway in South Korea. Fellow travelers, obviously bothered by the new addition to the train, expressed their irritation. She did not yield. In the old days, that would have been the end of it. But today, when face-to-face persuasion fails, there’s a fallback plan: anonymous Internet humiliation.
The Post notes, “One of the train riders took pictures of the incident with a camera phone and posted them on a popular Web site. Net dwellers soon began to call her by the unflattering nickname [loosely translated to ‘Dog Poop Girl’], and issued a call to arms for more information about her.”
And information they received. “According to one blog that has covered the story, ‘within days, her identity and her past were revealed.’” But that wasn’t enough: blogs and online discussion groups buzzed with dirt about Dog Poop Girl’s parents and relatives, and cries for more invasions of her privacy.
As George Washington University law professor Daniel J. Solove wrote on one blog, this was a demonstration of bloggers acting “as a cyber-posse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital scarlet letters.”
We’ve seen blogs act as media or political watchdogs, but not as aggressive watchdogs of individual violations of social norms. So this seems like a notable step. And, as with the emergence of “citizen” journalism, it is an undefined and unregulated step in a cyberworld that lacks boundaries and standards. As one online response to the Post article points out: “If the Internet was around in the late 1930’s in Germany, would it be OK for someone to post names and addresses of all the Jewish families in the country. Would it be OK to post their pictures, their kids’ pictures and list their kids’ school addresses and their places of work. If the Internet was around, would it be OK for the KKK to publish a list of the Blacks that needed attention from the lynch mob. I would argue that this question is a lot more complex than just dog poop.”
No doubt about it, the rise of citizen cyber-police such as those who tracked down and shamed the hapless Korean dog owner is a development with multiple ramifications. And trying to patrol these Internet lynch mobs may turn out to be just as impossible as trying to keep the world free of dog poop.