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An illusion of privacy…on the internet?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

We’ve written before about jurors and the internet but wanted to post an update for all of us. We tend to act more freely online. A recent PsyBlog post highlights the fact that the single and the young are more likely to disclose the most on Facebook. They disclose things they would never disclose face to face with a stranger. We would all do well to reconsider what we disclose on social networking sites—although the new Facebook privacy rules may have helped people to review their Facebook settings already. It wouldn’t hurt at all to take another look.

We may act more freely because we think we are somehow anonymous. And that may not be the case!

Consider, for example, the judge in Cleveland, Ohio who is suing a newspaper for $50M claiming it conspired to discover private information with a website. The claim filed by Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold alleges that the website reported the judge may have made anonymous comments on a newspaper’s website about cases in front of her court.

The newspaper says they filed an open records request and determined that the judge’s office computer was on the web site at the time three of the comments were left. “The only thing we did that the public couldn’t do was figure out whose e-mail was associated with those comments in the first place,” Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg said.

We have written, been interviewed, and have spoken at CLE programs frequently over the last couple of years about the need for judges to instruct jurors explicitly about ways internet communications and information needs to be avoided until they are released from trial duty.  Evidently Judge Saffold hasn’t been following our work in this area, or the work of countless courts that have made meaningful changes to jury instructions.  But perhaps the worst example so far this year is from Judge James Oppliger who emailed his fellow judges about his ongoing jury service.

The point is that you never know when that which you believe to be anonymous or private—won’t be! Just ask the policeman whose texting case was just heard by the Supremes.  While Judge Saffold is alleged to have not only made the mistake of assuming anonymity but also of commenting on cases before her court—we would hazard a guess that she certainly will be more careful about assuming anonymity in the future.

And finally, the dark side of social networks. While many would say that social networks often foster negativity and bias (and here and here) there is a new site out there that really is likely to pull negativity. is a place to evaluate friends, colleagues, waiters, service people—in essence, to write about anyone you wish.

According to Anne Fields’ blog, this site is an invitation for those who don’t like someone to simply trash them. And, as one social media expert says “Increasingly, today’s ‘social web’ doesn’t empower people. It empowers hate, exclusion and polarization.”

We all need to ‘be careful out there’ and monitor what we say and how we say it. You may want to think about monitoring your own reputation at a site like StepRep. And, if you’re a judge, avoid commenting on open cases!

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