[OUTLOOK]Privacy line blurred by Internet

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[OUTLOOK]Privacy line blurred by Internet

When the scandal between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was at its height, the investigation report drafted by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was downloaded from the Internet about 20 million times a day.
Bookstores were still selling piles of the Starr Report, a thick book with the same contents as the Internet document. People who could not download the report electronically from the Internet bought the book.
Recently, a so-called “x-file” on Korean entertainment stars was distributed quickly through the Internet.
In the aftermath, a new term, “x-file divide,” was created. It describes the distinction between those who were able to search for the file through the Internet and those who could not. The term is driven from the existing word “digital divide,” which describes the information gap in the digital era.
The curiosity of the public over the report, which infringed on the privacy rights of the celebrities, caused some damage. The Internet contributed to the problem by being the ideal venue for mass distribution.
It is easy to find out who is the subject of gossip. You will know if you read replies attached to an article posted on the Internet. Gossip spreads so quickly and so widely through the Internet.
It’s known that there is no restriction of expression in replies. When someone has a question, the answer appears on the Internet in real time.
The Internet also satisfies the desire to express oneself. So-called “cyworld maniacs” post their diaries and even school grade reports on their mini homepages to express themselves. Some even post photos of their girlfriends and ask the public to evaluate their appearances.
They check their popularity every day by counting how many people visit their sites.
The mini homepage users want to reveal themselves to the world without restriction. Under the name of frankness, they practice the aesthetics of exposure. It is a separate matter if others really want to know. The degree of exposure appears to be even greater than those in the western world, where self-expression has been more largely accepted as the norm.
Issues that have gained attention in the Internet arena have been largely emotional. Of course, those issues do play positive roles sometimes. The scandal over the poorly prepared lunch boxes for low-income children was a good example. If that one photo of the lunch box did not spread through the Internet, would it have been possible for the problem to be so touching to many people?
In contrast, there are negative side effects. In the world of the Internet, the standard of judging news value has become the number of hits and the number of replies on a Web site.
It does not necessarily make news more important because many people read it. But always light, sensational news items gain more attention than news about the public good.
The border between the private and the public areas has faded. A posting on a personal homepage or blog can become a typhoon when it spreads broadly. A newspaper journalist was recently sued after writing some derogatory comments about female TV anchors.
The writer probably thought that his blog was private, but visitors to the site elevated the posting to the mass public. On the Internet, it is ambiguous to draw a line between a personal journal and the public Internet media.
Because of the Internet’s characteristics of endless expansion and self-reproduction, the area where privacy is protected has been shrinking.
It is not the producer who makes the distinction between the private and the public zones; it is the users who make the decision.
In the era of horizontal communication, it has become a form of entertainment to expose oneself and to steal a glance at other people’s lives. It is good to learn about others and inform about oneself through the Internet. The desire to learn more and let others know more about oneself is not a problem. But we cannot allow giving harm to others, while trying to learn about others and let others know about me. No matter how much the communication technology develops, common decency does not change. Consideration toward each other is basic etiquette in all cultures. That applies to strangers and the general public. It is unacceptable to harm others for one’s own freedom.

* The writer is a professor of communications at Sookmyung Women’s University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kang Mee-eun
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