Duke Student Sex ‘Thesis’ Raises More Online Privacy Questions

CYBERSPACE—As hashed and scrambled as it has been over the years, the hot-button issue of internet privacy is once again rearing its ugly head in the wake of the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi and now the "outing" of 13 Duke athletes whom recent grad Karen Owen bedded and then tattled on in a “thesis” she sent to friends that then went viral.

While the Clementi tragedy is being framed as a bullying issue, it actually also comes down to a question of respect for his privacy. In that case, his roommate showed none. In the Duke case, Owen had none for her sex partners even though she never intended the “evaluation” she wrote to spread beyond the handful of friends who received it. That she never imagined it would spread beyond that group is almost impossible to believe, especially considering the intelligence and savvy that exudes from her writing.

It is far more likely that both parties to these insensitive, and in one case tragic, violations of privacy were simply too young to fully understand the consequences of their actions, though even that excuse doesn’t quite cut it for people who are in college. Some level of empathy should have developed in them by then. The fact that neither thought their actions would go viral does not mean that they were not sharing other people’s intimate details with others, no matter how few in number they were!

In the wake of the revelations of these stories, the “perpetrators” are now themselves in the spotlight, and Owen has reportedly gone into hiding, feeling ashamed about the long tail her actions produced. Now they will be dissected not only online, but increasingly in mainstream media editorials and on TV in one talk news program after another. What they did to others will now be visited upon them, only tenfold.

But the media should itself tread very carefully in its coverage of these stories, and also in the manner that it brings judgment upon these people. A holier-than-thou perspective will not sit well from a Fourth Estate that regularly devotes reams of print and pages of websites to stories about people who engage in sexual indiscretions. From The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal on down, we have become thoroughly voyeuristic and more than a little insensitive when it comes to the feelings of others. It’s as if life has become one big exposé.

In fact, today on CNN, Frederick Lane, an attorney, writer and longtime seminar moderator and speaker at adult industry trade shows—as well as an expert on internet privacy and social media—was interviewed on CNN Newsroom by anchor Brooke Baldwin. The interview aired live at 3:25 p.m. EST, and will probably repeat through the evening.

Lane, who is the author of “American Privacy: The 400-Year-History of Our Most Contested Right," was contacted by CNN to discuss the Duke University controversy.

"This is a topic that I lecture to students about frequently," Lane said. "Most don't really realize how easily and how quickly electronic information can spread. Even fewer really appreciate how permanent electronic information can be. Yes, a single copy can be deleted, but when something starts spreading on the Internet, it's virtually impossible to locate and delete every copy of an image or a file."

More information about Lane can be found on his website at FrederickLane.com. He can be contacted at [email protected] or by phone at (802) 318-4604.