When Decency Fails in the World Online (American Lawyer)

The frenzy of the mediacracy knows no bounds. Reporters snoop on even the president’s private quarters with binoculars; portable imaging devices make candid snapshots of any act immediately available for publication; the press swarms over the lives of the rich and famous, making their personal peccadilloes the daily public affairs agenda of the nation; pundits despair that information technology is the “chief enemy of privacy in modern life.”

Life in the era of the blogosphere and the cell phone camera? Not quite. The president is Grover Cleveland, newly married and beset by photographers on his honeymoon. The trial of the century is the adultery prosecution of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. The new media are the tabloid newspaper and the Kodak camera. The pundit is E.L. Godkin, who, writing in The Nation, despairs that “gossip about private individuals is now printed, and makes its victim, with all his imperfections on his head, known to … thousands, miles away from his place of abode.” And the year is 1890.

Daniel J. Solove’s “The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet” recounts how the privacy and defamation laws in force today were born out of this cauldron of competing rights (the free flow of newly disseminable information vs. the defense of “private” life) and legal ferment (new media vs. old laws).

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