Where User Responsibility Crosses Online Privacy


privacy_smallADOTAS – I was saddened when I heard CBS reporter Lara Logan was sexually assaulted while covering the Egyptian protests that culminated in the resignation of iron-fisted and corrupt president Hosni Mubarak. I hope she is recovering.

I was horrified when I read the insensitive coverage of and commentary on the incident that pervaded throughout the web. Comment sections were wiped clean and closed off after they overflowed with schadenfreude and widespread variations on “she was asking for it” — I personally believe that no matter the circumstances, sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.

Comment sections overrun with offensive postings are nothing new (though perhaps I was shocked by the seemingly unwarranted vitriol in this case), but one well-known journalist paid a hefty price for posting insensitive commentary on Twitter. Nir Rosen resigned his fellowship at New York University’s Center on Law and Security after tweeting such callous remarks as “It’s always wrong, that’s obvious, but I’m rolling my eyes at all the attention [she’ll] get,” and “She’s so bad that I ran out of sympathy for her.”

In an apology/defense of his actions on Salon.com, Rosen explains that he had been offended by Logan’s reporting in the past and was lamenting that coverage of her assault would overshadow violence committed against local and foreign reporters in U.S. media coverage. As you can tell, that point takes up more than 140 characters — Twitter is not for nuance, he explains, though I’ll argue the timing of that argument could have been better.

“When I first heard the news about Logan, I assumed she was roughed up like every other journalist — which is still bad — but I was jokingly trying to provoke one of my think tank friends on Twitter, thoughtlessly, of course, and terribly insensitively,” Rosen writes. “Stupidly, I didn’t think the banter between myself and a couple of other guys would amount to anything.”

Rosen should probably have read about the UK Press Complaints Commission’s ruling against a government official who filed suit when a newspaper republished her tweets about being hungover on the job. Tweets are in the public space — the U.S. Library of Congress actually saves them all.

Politics aside, Rosen makes the accurate comment in his mea culpa that there’s a larger lesson to be learned about social media — and user interaction with the Internet in general. In a stream of apologies after his initial tweets, Rosen added that he “forgot twitter is not exactly private.” Indeed, most Internet users’ ability to determine what is public and private online is severely lacking.

While some of Rosen’s defenders don’t think he should have resigned his post at NYU, I think it was a harsh but appropriate consequence for irresponsible use of social media. How else will people learn and begin to take responsibility for their online actions if they don’t see any ramifications?

Which stems into the debate around Internet privacy, particularly in how it applies to behavioral tracking and targeted advertising. There is no consensus about what data collected on the Internet should be/is private, and maybe there shouldn’t because it will differ from person to person — the Forward I icon and Internet Explorer 9 Tracking Protection Lists recognize this.

But users need to be confronted head-on with what data publishers and miners plan to collect and monetize so the users can make informed choices. For too long, ad tech firms have sneakily dropped cookies to follow browsers and build profiles instead of being open and transparent. But they’ve done this to avoid making users choose between paying for content via data or cold cash. Enjoy the show, and pay no attention to that man taking notes in the corner.

As the Federal Trade Commission loudly breathes down the online advertising industry’s neck, that method no longer flies. However, the FTC’s “Do Not Track” list is not a solution either — it would simply kill revenue for the majority of publishers and lead to further domination by the biggest kids on the publisher playground.

Educating browsers is an across-the-spectrum effort, and publishers in particular should probably step up their transparency efforts. But it’s a two-way street — once publishers and data collectors put the information out there (and really push it), it’s Internet users that must take responsibility.

Or suffer the consequences, which in most cases means being served an ad based on perceived interests. Sounds a lot better than being forced out of a job.

The Internet has become a central part of American and global culture over the last 20 years and is constantly evolving. But if we users can’t play with its toys — such as social media — without misusing them or hurting ourselves and others, we can’t just blame the toys.


  1. Interesting piece. When Nir Rosen argues that Lara Logan deserves it, he’s expressing the same mentality as a rapist and in my opinion that needs to be called out and called out loudly or the message just stays out there and becomes socially acceptable. Thanks for covering the topic.

  2. I don’t see the link here at all. You are extending user responsibility in a broadcast medium (twitter) to a broad call for user responsibility of their privacy across all online activity. Thats a dangerous analogy.

    Its like saying — Don Imus said something offensive on the radio — but we should all have responsibility to self-police our houses to make sure that people aren’t peeping in our windows.
    We should expect that certain activities (online and offline) have an inherent right of privacy, and others do not. They are not all equivalent.

    • No, the equivalent is, “Don Imus said something offensive on the radio when he didn’t realize his microphone was on.” Most of us don’t realize we’re running around the Internet with our microphones on, and then are shocked when advertisers try to target us via what we’ve said. Users must realize that the Internet is a public place and take that into consideration with their behavior.

      As for “inherent right of privacy” — data collectors (the good boys at least) avoid personal identification information such as names and email addresses, while in the offline world, governments sell your address to marketers. We shouldn’t leave it to inherence online — ad tech firms and pubs need to spell out what they are going to take upfront, and users accept or decline.


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