In his book, the Future of Reputation, law professor Daniel Solove had described the case of the Korean “dog poop girl” and how the Internet had been used to identify her and shame her. For her failure to clean up after her dog, she was internationally vilified and indeed, for the rest of her life, will likely be branded by the incident. Referring to the incident in his 2005 article in the Washington Post, Jonathan Krim had written:
In discussions with dozens of people about this story, and in reading comments on blogs, I found an intriguing common thread. The instinct of most was to accept using the Internet as a new social-enforcement tool, but to search for that point on the continuum where enough was too much.
Putting Dog Poop Girl’s picture on the Web was OK, some said, but not the clamoring for more information that followed. Others said the woman’s face and other identifying features should have been obscured more. Still others said she was entitled to no privacy at all.
On a global level, those who believe in the “no privacy at all” perspective seem to be prevailing, as two recent cases in the news suggest. Crowd-sourcing was recently used to identify a British woman who threw a cat in a dumpster, and she was put under police protection after getting death threats from cat lovers. More recently, crowd-sourcing was used to identify a young Bosnian girl who was captured on video throwing puppies into a river.
Both of these incidents involved users of the UK-based 4chan, but what some call Internet vigilantism is a more global issue, regardless of whether you call it vigilantism or “human flesh searching” as it is called in Taiwan.
While there is a certain sense of justice, perhaps, in not letting people get away with killing or abusing animals, given the potential damage to reputation of a misidentification or false accusation, and given that there may be threats of physical violence against presumed perpetrators, where do we draw that line now between identifying social miscreants, “outing” them, and taking things to the next level? There will be some who argue that “If you have nothing to hide….” But what if you’re not the one with something to hide and wind up branded on the Internet in perpetuity as an animal abuser or social miscreant? The power to harm reputation is incredible. Recognition of that needs to temper our actions.