It’s a rite of passage for most any Internet user: An unflattering photo, video or a statement taken out of context that with a click of a mouse is suddenly visible to hundreds (or possibly billions) of people.
In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat, people know more about each other’s lives faster than ever before, which has led some to wonder: is anything we say private anymore?
The question was brought into sharper focus last week when the National Basketball Association banned L.A. Clippers owner Don Sterling for life after an investigation confirmed that Sterling was the voice on a tape saying he didn’t want his alleged mistress to bring black people to his games.
While few, if any, social commentators have defended Sterling's racist comments, the question of whether his privacy was violated is being debated across the Internet.
Author Joyce Carol Oates tweeted Wednesday morning, “Am I the only person in U.S. surprised that a private conversation (no matter how ugly) can be the basis for such public recrimination?”
Attorney Mark J. Randazza said in a CNN opinion article that what happened to Sterling was “morally wrong" if Sterling didn’t know he was being recorded, which is against the law in California.
Huffington Post blogger and radio host Matt Walsh also took a stance against what he saw as an invasion of privacy.
“We permit and even celebrate most forms of evil and debauchery in our society, so our moral outrage energy is stored, ready to be unleashed anytime an old white guy utters something untoward about minorities. Having removed sins like baby killing, pornography, sex trafficking, and infidelity from the ‘Things to Get Upset About’ column, this seems to be among the only universally recognized evils remaining,” Walsh wrote in a recent blog post. “It’s a troubling precedent when we start penalizing people for essentially being entrapped, illegally, by an intimate confidant. The NBA might have the authority to ban Sterling for life and force the sale of his team, but the move is nonetheless problematic.”
Hanni Fakhoury is a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that serves as a watchdog on free speech and privacy issues. He says thanks to the Internet, outrage over moral wrongs by public figures is more visual and viral than ever.
“Things that we say in private can very quickly spread given new technology. Within minutes, billions of people have seen it across the world,” Fakhoury said. “It’s outrage that spreads, people take that kind of outcry seriously. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. In some situations, it can go awry.”
And while Americans take their privacy seriously, they also seem to have no illusions that what’s on the Internet is private. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that while 86 percent of Americans were concerned enough about privacy to take steps to “erase or mask their digital footprints,” 56 percent believe anonymity on the Internet is impossible.
With Pew reporting that 58 percent of adults own smartphones and 42 percent own tablet computers, it doesn't seem the public is willing to give up the Internet in the interest of more privacy.
Robert Drechsel is the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics who says that often, however grudging, Internet users voluntarily sacrifice their privacy rights.
“To some degree, that’s our own fault by making that info available to a much broader audience,” Drechsel said.
But the National Security Agency wiretapping scandal illustrated that a person’s privacy isn’t a given in the world of smartphones and the Internet.
“A lot of the intrusion seems beyond our ability to do anything about,” Drechsel said. “To enjoy the benefits of what the Internet provides, the cost is that we give up more bits and pieces of our privacy.”
To compound matters, the legal issues around privacy and new technology are still emerging, Drechsel said.
The U.S. Supreme Court began the task of navigating the world of privacy rights, smartphones and search warrants this week, when it began hearing arguments in a case about the legality of using evidence gathered from cellphones seized during an arrest.
“What is the reasonable expectation of privacy of a person in 2014 who has a cellphone … on his or her person?” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked during proceedings this week.
Dreschsel says he doesn't know how to answer that question. “Certainly all of us have to be much more cautious about our own privacy because it seems to be a shrinking zone that we all enjoy," he said.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, users should take back their privacy by signing petitions and calling congressmen. According to experts like Fakhoury, all users can do right now is be cautious.
“That’s the real lesson to take away from this: What you say can bite you in the butt and the Internet facilitates that more than any other time,” Fakhoury said.