Renaissance Column

MAY 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 5


KEVIN RIDOLFI

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KEVIN RIDOLFI, a graphic designer and Web programmer from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is the creator and editor of Renaissance Online Magazine.

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The Practice Targeted Internet Privacy - and Rightly So

KEVIN RIDOLFI

Somewhere, someone is watching you. It's not hard, the information is out there, free for the grabbing. Like never before, the American public is on display in some sort of sensationalistic world where voyeurs are around every corner and busy-bodies peer out from behind every tree.

That spreading landscape is unfortunately made possible by the internet, the greatest man-made communication tool of all time. At the click of a mouse, one can gather surprising amounts of information about the most ordinary of people. People who probably assume that they are safe from prying eyes because they have never been a celebrity (or a public figure of any kind).

Sounds like a plot from the "X-Files" doesn't it? Shifty schemes, hidden cameras and exposed private lives make great food for paranoid thought. But Cris Carter has managed to avoid that internet theme (at least for now), content instead with his little green men and unexplained phenomenons. ABC's "The Practice", however, took the icy plunge into the depths of internet privacy in what may have been David Kelley's most thought-provoking episode of the year.

Kelley, the creator and principal writer of both "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal", has a knack for monitoring and reflecting the pulse of human emotion. His well-written shows dig at the root of topical issues, exposing the raw, nakedness of the human psyche. Unearthing that grey area between morality and humanity that we all straddle. With Kelley, coming to terms with the percolating emotions beneath the issues is more important than whether the law cases are won or lost.

His look at the invasion of internet privacy on April 19 ("Home Invasions") tapped into America's fear of computers, exposure and the unknown. In one succinct hour, he questioned an overblown, yet still rapidly growing, medium that operates almost without regulation - a horny, rambunctious teen without adult supervision - and recognized the distinct voyeur's dichotomy - the love to watch other people, tempered by the fear of being watched. Even the crack team of lawyers in "The Practice's" budding Boston firm was surprised at the lack of internet restrictions. Horrified, they fought diligently for the honor of a 19-year-old receptionist whose blurry, naked image had been posted all over the internet.

We should be disgusted that such practices go on - and make no mistake, they do occur. On the show, she was filmed - while showering, dressing and who knows what else - by her landlord without her permission. And yet, the only crime they could arrest him for was stealing the electricity that ran the video camera. I think in a situation where a teenager is being exploited for her body without her knowledge, the legal system needs to do better than that. It currently isn't against any law to post uncopyrighted pictures or videos on the web regardless of how you got them (unless there's sound in the videos), which means you can snap anyone's photo and use it for your own money making scheme without recourse. That is clearly wrong and needs to be stopped. The internet is a great communication tool that is being wasted if it is just being used as an expensive means to a pornographic end.

Kelley struck the right nerve and built upon society's strange fear of technology, which walks hand-in-hand with a fear of the unknown. This is the reason why a twelve-year-old surpasses his parents by leaps and bounds in terms of his ability to program the VCR or perform tasks on a PC. It has absolutely nothing to do with intellect or natural ability, but rather a young kid isn't afraid of the consequences of making a mistake. In most areas, this is a bad thing (such as trying to parachute off the roof of your house), but in this case this naiveté and fearlessness works to their advantage. What does this have to do with the issue of internet privacy? Everything. For without this existing technological paranoia, the audience would have viewed this episode of "The Practice" through cynical eyes.

This insecurity (both mental and technological) prevents users from protecting themselves or stops them from taking advantage of the legitimate services the internet has to offer.

Even beyond the pornographic underbelly of the web, private information is too easily dispersed. As illustrated by the over exposure of one judge's sex life via the internet on "The Practice", there is far too much personal information on all sorts of legitimate web sites. Case in point: a slew of sites offer phone directories and resident map services like Yahoo!, which is innocent enough on the surface. However, by using a couple of these free services in conjunction with each other, it is possible to type in just a few consecutive numbers of person's phone number and the state they live in to pinpoint their residence, and even get exact, step-by-step driving directions.

I don't know if this is some sort of stalker service or what, but I'm thinking that if I know a person well enough to visit, I should be able to call for my own directions. Going through these steps seems to only benefit the deviant who has ulterior motives. I ran several tests and the results were quite disturbing: I could type in just a few letters of a last name along with a city and the site quickly handed over a phone number, street address and the option for a map. Think of what someone in a bar can do after glancing at a woman's license for just a few seconds - simply memorize her last name and city, and Chester can pop in for a romantic visit the following day.

I won't even get into the huge invasion of privacy that defines spam emails. Suffice as to say that no other form of advertising is as obtrusive - including meal-time telemarketers - as countless, uninvited bulk emails advertising everything from mail order steaks to live sex shows.

For the record, I'm not trying to fan the paranoid fire here. Rather, I find the subject of internet privacy raised by David Kelley extremely thought-provoking. This is a sure sign of quality writing. As in most cases, this episode of "The Practice" has done a superb job of raising questions and prompting contemplation. Kelley isn't trying to create rampant panic; he's creating awareness of real issues that sit in wait of resolution.

And a resolution will come. Once the government overcomes the pressures by extraordinarily wealthy internet freedom lobbyists, some regulations will be passed. After doing so, freedom of speech - which seems to lie at the foundation of all debates these days - will still remain intact through the internet's nature alone, and the internet will continue to push the communication envelope, but these ideals will be accomplished much more responsibly. The future of the internet can remain bright as long as it doesn't continue to stumble ahead as a derivative of the tabloids or an enhanced porno mag.

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