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Protecting Privacy Means Remembering Our Cyber Manners


When we talk about preserving our privacy online, we often do so out of concern for a civilized future. Valuing privacy is, in part, an endorsement of a society based on respect, trust, and rule of law.

Good manners are another component of that civilized society. Treating people politely, respectfully and with compassion is foundational to our social contract. If we break that contract, our reputation suffers, and we risk alienation. When bad manners escalate to criminal behavior, we also risk incarceration.

There’s also a crucial connection between good manners online and preserving privacy. The internet affords us tremendous free speech opportunities. Degrees of privacy online mean we may speak our mind and share ideas without fear of recrimination. But the ability to speak anonymously also has a shadow side: cyberbullying.

Those who abuse their right to privacy in order to harass or intimidate others jeopardize our collective right to privacy online. If we do not condemn those who bully others online and endorse good citizenship in our online exchanges, we risk giving a very powerful lever to those who may wish to dismantle or otherwise abuse our right to privacy. We should avoid abusive speech and encourage skillful or mindful speech – and in such a way apply awareness, wisdom and compassion to our online privacy choices.

Think cyberbullying is a fringe problem? You might be surprised.

Sobering Statistics About Online Harassment

A recent Pew Research Center study highlighted the prevalence of online harassment. In the study, Pew Research asked respondents about six different forms of online harassment. Those who witnessed harassment said they had seen at least one of the following occur to others online:

 • 60% of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names

 • 53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone

 • 25% had seen someone being physically threatened

 • 24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time

 • 19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed

 • 18% said they had seen someone be stalked

Those who have personally experienced online harassment said they were the target of at least one of the following online:

 • 27% of internet users have been called offensive names

 • 22% have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them

 • 8% have been physically threatened

 • 8% have been stalked

 • 7% have been harassed for a sustained period

Harassment is especially a problem for young women. The Pew survey revealed that “women age 18 – 24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment. In addition, they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.”

An example of this type of harassment was most recently evident in the events surrounding Gamergate, which escalated to include threats of rape and murder.

Advancing Online Etiquette & Digital Citizenship

So how to we eliminate cyberbullying and promote a civilized society both offline and online? Given how widespread cyberbullying appears to be among youth, there’s a strong argument for early education.

The Brookings Institute recently published a paper, “Youth Internet Safety: Risks, Responses, and Research Recommendations,” which provides tips to help prevent cyberbullying. Recommendations include parental monitoring of online behavior, an effort to encourage youth to limit how much they share online, and methods for changing online accounts to discourage abusers. Adults and children alike can benefit from mindful use of technology. Sharing mindfully, (i.e. “pause before you post”) is an essential mindset for both protecting privacy and promoting good manners online.

While these tips are helpful, a more comprehensive approach may be to teach the concept of “digital citizenship.” Discussing digital citizenship is a way to teach kids responsible online behavior, but it is useful for people of all ages. Digital citizenship is broadly defined by nine core elements, including the concept of Digital Etiquette:

“Digital Etiquette: electronic standards of conduct or procedure. Technology users often see this area as one of the most pressing problems when dealing with Digital Citizenship. We recognize inappropriate behavior when we see it, but before people use technology they do not learn digital etiquette (i.e., appropriate conduct). Many people feel uncomfortable talking to others about their digital etiquette. Often rules and regulations are created or the technology is simply banned to stop inappropriate use. It is not enough to create rules and policy, we must teach everyone to become responsible digital citizens in this new society.”

The Digital Citizenship website goes on to suggest how the major themes of “Respect, Educate, and Protect” (the REPs) can be taught beginning at an early age. A more detailed look at this approach can be found here and a great infographic on the topic here. Microsoft also provides resources about digital citizenship on its Safety & Security Center.

We live in a world where “online” and “offline” are increasingly merged. If we are committed to maintaining a civilized and humane society, we should consider all the ways in which good manners and digital citizenship are intertwined with our privacy values. Consider the impact of your speech on others and if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it in cyberspace.

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