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Response: Violations of Contextual Integrity: The Washingtonienne and The Phantom Professor

The model of contextual integrity which Nissenbaum posits in chapter 7 of her book Privacy in Context offers a good benchmark for determining whether the blogs by Washingtonienne and the Phantom Professor described in Daniel Solove’s chapter “Gossip and The Virtues of Knowing Less” can be justly deemed violations of privacy over  the public medium of the Internet.  Nissenbaum holds that considerations of privacy are not private and idiosyncratic, nor can they be clearly delineated in terms of  a private and a public sphere – the private being a context in which constraints must be exercised and the public a context in which anything is open to exposure. “The framework of contextual integrity,” Nissenbaum states, “postulates a multiplicity of social contexts, each with a distinctive set of rules governing information flow” (41).  The myriad situational contexts which are the fabric of everyday life necessitate that we assume different roles as we interact with other people who have come together to participate in the same activity.  As participants we adhere to the rules which govern our interactions in particular settings, whether these rules are encoded in law, standards of professional conduct or implicit cultural practices. What we say, how much we say, who says it and to whom it is said (what Nissenbaum terms the sender, the receiver and the type of information transmitted) vary depending on our situation and our role in that situation.  Violations of privacy are violations of these context relative informational norms.

As such, a number of Jessica Cultler’s posts on The Washingtonienne and Elaine Liner’s posts on The Phantom Professor were violations of contextual integrity.  Jessica’s posts began innocently enough, it was a way to keep her friends in the loop about her adventures -sexual or otherwise; her intended audience included women in her intimate circle.  Blogging about her sexual exploits with Robert or any other man she occasionally slept with was like telling stories over drinks – what she told and how much she told was between her and her friends.  When, however, the dynamics of her relationship with Robert changed, Jessica’s continued blogging about their sexual practices without his knowledge or consent was a violation of the new roles they had assumed.  Whether the disclosure took place in an office on Capitol Hill, where as Jessica later said many of her male colleagues publicized their sexual encounters, over a martini with a group of friends or on the Internet, it was a violation. Robert would have felt betrayed nonetheless. When the information crossed the confines of one social context and became available to a multiplicity of audiences, the betrayal became more egregious.

In the case of The Phantom Professor, the norms violated were those common to educational settings in interactions between professional colleagues and between teachers and students.  That teachers/professors talk about students amongst themselves and that students share information with other students about their teachers is commonly acknowledged.  Such exchanges serve a multiplicity of purposes – they may help us achieve professional goals, forge relationships or simply vent frustrations. It is important that these exchanges remain confined, however, to the players involved in the exchange; in  an Internet blog they cannot.  Linder’s post about her colleagues was a greater violation. In the physical world, when teachers talk with each other about colleagues, they must exercise discretion about what they say and who they say it to. Such exchanges are often prefaced with “this is just between us” or “you didn’t hear from me.”  They must also be careful about divulging information to “super nodes” – those gregarious individuals who “exist in numerous different social circles” (Solove 63), for they understand, that by doing so, the work environment may at best become awkward or at worst downright poisonous.  In talking negatively about her colleague “Professor Wideass,” The Phantom Professor violates a professional norm.  Further in talking about students, the Phantom Professor violates a norm even more sacrosanct in an educational setting – that of teachers talking about students with other students.

Works Cited

Nissenbaum, Helen.  “Contexts, Informational Norms, Actors, Attributes, and Transmission Principles.” Privacy in Context:Technology, Privacy and the Integrity of Social Life  Stanford CA: Stanford Law Books, 2010. 129-157. Print.

Solove, Daniel J. “Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less.” The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and  Privacy on the Internet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. 50-75. Print.


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