Privacy Rights and the Korean Dog Poop Girl

 Posted by on 2 August 2005 at 7:42 am  Uncategorized
Aug 022005

The internet can be used as a powerful tool for public shaming as can be seen in this recent notorious example.

A woman and her dog are riding the Seoul subways. The dog poops in the floor. The woman refuses to clean it up, despite being told to by other passengers. Someone takes a picture of her, posts it on the Internet, and she is publicly shamed — and the story will live on the Internet forever. Then, the blogosphere debates the notion of the Internet as a social enforcement tool.

The Internet is changing our notions of personal privacy, and how the public enforces social norms.

Here are the pictures and subsequent parodies.

This episode raises some fascinating and important issues on the concept of so-called “privacy rights” and the reasonable expectation of privacy in the Internet age. I haven’t thought these issues through in the depth required, but my suspicion is that the notion of “privacy rights” as is currently discussed is actually a package-deal of a number of somewhat-related issues lumped together under one banner. In some contexts, personal information about oneself can and should be protected, whereas in other contexts there is no reasonable expectation of privacy; and the various situations need to be carefully analyzed in terms of the appropriate underlying principles. (I hasten to add that I don’t have a clear idea of how best to formulate these principles, let alone apply them in all the tricky cases. Many of the currently tricky situations would probably also be covered by private contract).

There are a number of resources that describe the state of the current law with respect to when model releases are required for photographs taken in a public setting, and here is one typical website. Based on my reading, here are some factors that could be used to argue that the Korean woman’s rights were not violated:

1. She was in a public place, and therefore had a low reasonable expectation of privacy.
2. Her actions were “news-worthy”.
3. The photograph did not portray her in a false light (i.e., the photograph was used to illustrate a true claim about her actions).

Of course, if some cretins were to use this information to illegally harass her (such as sending her death threats), that would clearly be a rights-violation — but the bad act would be the harassers’ use of the information, not the dissemination of the photograph in the first place.

(There is the usual mild complicating factor that this particular incident took place in a public subway, and under an ideal system of government such subways would be under private ownership and the owners would be able to establish the rules for use of cameras by customers. But even today, the same issues already arise, for instance in large privately-owned but open-to-the-public shopping malls where the mall owners have not spelled out explicit rules regarding the use of cameras by customers. In those cases, the law assumes a very low reasonable expectation of privacy — for example, a shopper cannot go to such a mall sporting a bizarre purple hairdo, then get upset when passers-by giggle and point at him or her. The very act of voluntarily going to such a place where one can expect to be in the full view of a large number of other customers, means that one cannot be surprised when one’s unusual behaviour is noticed and commented upon.)

In general, assuming that there are no rights-violations involved, I like the use of widespread dissemination of (truthful) information to encourage good behaviour through reputation effects. We already know this works well in the commercial world (i.e., selecting a doctor or an auto mechanic), and this should translate well to non-commercial public behaviour.

But I’d be very interested in hearing how others analyze this issue.

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