Cyber-Shaming Sought as Cure to Social Ills

Better pay those taxes lest you run the risk of being cyber-shamed by your local government.

More and more cities are using the Web to coerce residents through the risk of humiliation to abide by municipal rules. Men who solicit prostitutes, sex offenders, tax-paying delinquents and restaurants who failed their health inspections are just some of the societal offenders plastered on the World Wide Web.

"It’s definitely a trend," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "All this stuff that’s churning through the criminal justice system, through the court system … there are very active debates around the country in the big cities, small cities, small towns about what we put online."

But critics say the practice is an excuse for local governments to get out of their civic duties.

"It’s more an attempt of the bureaucracy to resist answering the telephone, above anything else," said Robert Ellis Smith, editor of the Privacy Journal. "It’s a way for bureaucracies just to get the public out of their hair."

Cyber-shaming has taken a variety of forms of late. Denver, Colo., puts the pictures of "johns" convicted of hiring prostitutes on the Internet. Launched July 25, "Johns TV Online" is the Web version of a local TV show aimed at shaming people in the community who roam the streets looking for paid-for sex. City officials thought that if they could reduce the demand for prostitution services, the women themselves would be forced to find other, more reputable work.

"It’s been amazingly popular," said Steve Hansen, marketing director for Denver’s Office of Television and Internet Services. "It sort of adds one more level of shame to any poor guy who’s thinking of going out and doing this on the street -- that not only will your local friends and family be humiliated, but so will everyone else in the world."

"That seems to have a real chilling effect on these guys," Hansen added.

New York City posts the results of restaurant inspections. Louisiana, North Carolina and Connecticut post the names and other information of chronic delinquent taxpayers. Thirty-two states have either put up a similar system or are in the process of doing so.

Orlando posts pictures of anyone arrested for prostitution or drugs that can be seen just by clicking on the "Busted" icon on the Orlando Police Web site. New York City and Chicago post names of parking ticket cheapskates.

Advocates and other Internet experts say one benefit of cyber-shaming is that it drives traffic to other parts of what normally would be considered boring or mundane parts of local government Web sites, such as neighborhood bond projects, property records, local events and ballot referenda. It also can be used as an economic development tool and as a way to drive citizens to local businesses.

"It’s really a kind of smorgasbord," Rainie said. "Part of the thing they’re trying to do is make services available to citizens to make it easier to work with government … and to try to show the government is working."

According to Pew, 80 percent of local governments now have Web sites. A Hart-Teeter study released in February shows that 76 percent of Internet users and 51 percent of Americans now have visited a government Web site and that 62 percent of government officials think they should move quickly toward expanding more electronic government services.

Given these facts, cyber-shaming may be one of the more effective ways to lure citizens to local Web sites.

But, Smith warns communities must be careful to protect citizens' privacy as they clean up the neighborhoods.

"I don’t think there’s been enough caution to the accuracy of the information and the timeliness of it," Smith said. "They have to decide what’s going to be informative and what’s going to be vindictive."

Smith said local governments need to have a plan on how to remove people who have legitimate complaints about their names being posted on the Web. That includes cases of mistaken identity or the listing of a wrong address that ends up sending people to the residence of an innocent citizen.

"I don’t know of any municipalities that have such a plan in place before they put the information up," Smith said.

But others say the public will let governments know when they’ve had too much.

"In the public’s mind -- it’s a pretty clean divider: If it’s material that relates to problems or crime or issues that involve other people, they would love it online," Rainie said. "But they draw the line at their own personal privacy."

"There’s no legal reason not to put it online but most Americans would say, ‘no, no, no, that’s too close to home.’"