Privacy, transparency and integrity on the Web

From its establishment in 2005, the website KnowThyNeighbor.org has been mired in controversy by its primary goal: to publicly publish the names of those who signed and sponsored petitions for the passage by referendum of anti-LGBT laws or the rescinding of pro-LGBT laws.

This tactic is an expansion upon the logic behind “outing”, whereby openly anti-LGBT politicians and other figures are exposed as enjoying their sexual orientations under cover of darkness or secrecy. However, KnowThyNeighbor.org took the approach of publishing the names of the signatories behind anti-gay petitions in a number of states, primarily on the premise that such people, however private, were acting as initiators of legislation, an action which is usually the reserve of elected representatives who sit in standing legislatures.

This approach was decried as verging on “intimidation” and was judicially challenged, ending in a victory for KnowThyNeighbor.org in the U.S. Supreme Court’s July 2010 8-1 ruling of Doe v. Reed. Constitutional Law Prof Blog’s Ruthann Robson quoted Scalia’s opinion that:

“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,”

while Lyrissa Lidsky commented that the worry about chilling effects upon democratic participation is

outweighed by the need for disclosure, where, as in Doe v. Reed, the speaker is taking action which has “direct legislative effect,” to borrow a phrase from the Ninth Circuit.  The petition signer is not acting merely in his role as citizen but in his role as citizen-legislator.  When he steps into this role, the public’s interests in transparency and accountability in the legislative process arguably trump the rather weak First Amendment speech interest involved, at least where there has been no credible showing that disclosure will result in harassment of or violence against the petition signer.

KnowThyNeighbor.org declared this to be “a major victory” and continues to remain up and running.

But the worry over New Media’s intersection of privacy and transparency has manifested in a number of cases – both civil and criminal – where intimidation has been cited as a motive or implication for the publication of names or contact addresses onto the Internet. One of the most famous examples was the Nuremberg Files published by Neal Horsley, a Georgia anti-abortion activist who published a directory of abortion providers in various states, at least one of whom was murdered. Long story short, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a prior bar upon the publication was rescinded on First Amendment grounds.

Anonymity vs. transparency has continued to be debated into the present, with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt of Google having criticized the notion of anonymity on the Internet on the matter of integrity in interpersonal communication, and both have been eviscerated by various commentators for their favorable, business-flavored stance towards “radical transparency” in online social networking.

But does transparency and full exposure – especially over the Internet – necessarily lead to a self-assessment of integrity, of higher thresholds of tolerance, of self-control over one’s choice of expressions (a notion which is often described as “self-censorship”)? Or is a regime of radical transparency always, perpetually unsafe from the occasional breach by an anonymous party?

From the logic of KnowThyNeighbor.org, which used New Media to expose the names of would-be legislators who had already signed their identities to petitions in order to affect the lives of others through the ballot box, to the logic of individuals who compose “(s)**t lists” of individuals who do not intend to negatively affect anyone’s lives without consent, to the logic of individuals who operate and manage opt-in directories of content and identities but maintain a belief in full, unfettered transparency as a prerequisite to integrity, the clash of privacy against transparency continues to bedevil the ongoing discussion on the weighing of the importance of contributors against their own contributions, and whether “responsibility” is as valid in the day and age of quickly-trafficked information (and lingering instances of vigilante retribution) as it once was.

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About Harry Underwood

Website designer, blogger. Columbus, GA. #LGBT #p2 #wordpress

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