THE BLOG
10/17/2014 04:11 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Oversharing: Are We Relinquishing Our Right to Anonymity?

A few days ago, I read Jeffrey Toobin's article "The Solace of Oblivion" in The New Yorker. It revolves around our right to anonymity (in Toobinsian speak, the "right to be forgotten"), if we even have the right to it at all. After reading what Toobin had to say about privacy matters, I began to think about the consequences regarding both the existence and the lack of anonymity. Do we have the right to be anonymous or does it interfere with our country's commitment to freedom of speech?

When does our right to privacy become a violation of someone else's freedom of speech? In the US, we feel a societal obligation to share everything that happens in our personal lives through social media: we share pictures, ideas, music and life events among countless other tidbits of life we feel are necessary to publicize. This idea of over-sharing is not only present within standard social media: news websites will essentially publish anything in our content-obsessed society. BuzzFeed recently came out with "28 Things People Obsessed with Peanut Butter Will Understand," and "Bruce Jenner Lets His Hair Down." These become hard-hitting headlines worthy of publication. There is nothing wrong with this, but if we continue to celebrate this type of authorship, isn't it hypocritical to crave anonymity when we are basically stealing it away from ourselves? We are giving credit to absolutely everything, which makes our right to anonymity something of a ghost.

In other countries, especially those in Europe, the right to privacy is a strongly upheld institution. Laws are in place to protect people from the common exposure of their private matters through digital platforms. In one instance, the people of Europe filed a lawsuit against Facebook for violating data protection laws. More than 25,000 Europeans came together to support this lawsuit. However, in the US, emphasis put on maintaining privacy is so often ignored because we fervently emphasize freedom of speech. By this, I mean that we have adopted a mindset of "if you put it out there, anyone else has the right to look at, use and share that information." Is this right? Yes, once information is posted online it becomes visible to the public; however, does that give other people the right to exploit that information? Almost everyone in the US is guilty of this hypocrisy: for example, "I don't want everyone to see my own naked body but I have no problem Googling the leaked iCloud photos of celebrities." Did those celebrities give us permission to stare at their naked bodies? Or is it OK to look at them without permission because they were leaked onto a public platform? By violating someone else's privacy, aren't we just becoming undeserving of our own?

Toobin brings up the case of Nikki Catsouras, a girl who was decapitated in a car accident. The pictures of her dead body were leaked by employees of the California coroner's office and are now circulating around the Internet. Extreme legal measures were taken by the Catsouras family to get these pictures taken down, but were not successful. The California Highway Patrol would not give up the copyright to the photos; therefore, the websites that posted the pictures were not legally required to take them down. Is this a violation of the Catsouras family privacy, or an example of freedom of speech being exercised appropriately?

The example of Nikki Catsouras' case is a lapse in the US government's protection of our privacy, but we cannot blame the government for taking away our anonymity in all cases because we have surrendered our privacy on so many platforms. We have choices. We can choose what to post or publish and this will affect the way the government chooses to handle matters of personal privacy. We can control what we share and how we share it. What we cannot control is how thoroughly our government will protect our right to privacy when it becomes a matter of someone else's right to freedom of speech. In order to protect the privacy of people like Nikki Catsouras we must rethink our societal devotion to sharing. The photos of Nikki were originally leaked because employees thought it would be a funny Halloween prank to send the gruesome pictures to their friends. The photos were shared and shared until the Catsouras family's right to anonymity became irrelevant even in the eyes of the US government. It is in our control to emphasize the importance of our right to anonymity and to balance privacy with freedom of speech.

The plot thickens: let's say someone is raped but decides they do not want to file a police report because they know that as soon as they do, their situation becomes public information. Instead, the person chooses to maintain their anonymity. While many people might think this is crazy (who wouldn't want to convict their rapist?) others care more about total personal privacy. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal: there aren't any consequences for deciding against filing a police report, right? Wrong. Victims of rape in New York City are incentivized to surrender their anonymity: the drugs administered to a person after a rape (antiretroviral drugs intended to reverse the onset of HIV/AIDS) are extremely expensive and are only paid for if a police report is filed. Combivir, one of the antiretroviral drugs prescribed in post-rape scenarios, is currently being sold as a prescription drug for an estimated $752.64. The patient is responsible for paying for this drug unless they choose to file a police report. This means that if you choose to retain your anonymity, you are not eligible to the same rights as someone who chooses to expose their situation. While this is a good proposition in the sense that it increases the chances of arresting and prosecuting the rapist, the government is essentially taking away the right to life from those who choose to hold on to their anonymity. For NYC rape victims, choosing privacy means also possibly choosing a deadly disease unless you can personally afford the medication to prevent it.

Of course, the government puts in places these rules so that justice can be served and the criminal can be caught. For the victim, it comes down to a choice between punishing the rapist and being rewarded with free treatment, and choosing personal anonymity from the crime. Should the people choosing privacy not get the same treatment? In this case, anonymity is being sacrificed not in the face of freedom of speech, but in order to promote justice and eliminate as much crime as possible. The government has the correct motive: we all want to catch the bad guy. But do we want to catch the bad guy so badly that we are willing to publicize a lot of extremely personal information? The answer is in the eyes of the beholder and neither position is right or wrong. What is wrong is denying rights to someone because they choose to remain anonymous.

This is the great thing about freedom of speech: aren't we exercising the right to its full extent when we choose to not say anything?