Digital rubber-necking is America's favorite sport. The Web has made it a global phenomena.
The tawdry Schwarzenegger affair and the philandering U.K. soccer star Ryan Giggs have put the issue of personal privacy in the Internet age into sharp focus. And social networking sites like Twitter quickly leveled the playing field and make a mockery of existing legal and societal rules.
Bigger than one of his own Hollywood blockbusters, the tale of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his illegitimate child was brought to light by the Los Angeles Times, which hewed to certain standards by not not identifying the mother. But after a gossip site named the housekeeper and published photos of her, it went viral online.
Since there was no point in protecting her privacy after that, most news organizations, including this one and others such as The New York Times and CNN, threw up their collective hands and published the information as well.
Meanwhile, across the pond a very different set of rules was being applied to several similar celebrity scandals. In at least three separate cases involving public figures in the U.K., judges had put in place secret so-called "super-injunctions," which outlaw the publication of any information in these cases regarding personal scandals.
The court orders are dubbed super-injunctions because not only do they bar the media from publishing stories -- even though they are true and accurate -- but they even make it illegal to even reveal the existence of the injunction.
It's like putting the media on double secret probation.
The strange law is intended to prevent blackmail. However, in at least two cases it has had the unfortunate side-effect of allowing photos of women involved in illicit affairs to be splashed across the Web, while concealing the identity of the wealthy, married celebs.
Clever columnists flirted with violating the law by writing sarcastic stories, but it wasn't until information about soccer start Giggs hit Twitter that the issue of super-injunctions really blew up. When Giggs fought back by obtaining a U.K. court order demanding that Twitter reveal the identity of said user, the Twitterverse went ballistic, relentlessly posting the soccer star's name tens of thousands of times.
So is the Internet destroying the notion of personal privacy? Well, it's certainly upending all the old rules, sometimes for the good, sometimes not.
Historically, technology companies have all but declared war on your privacy.
In 1999, Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNealy bluntly stated, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." A decade later, such attitudes persisted with the now ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt taunting, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
(So put down that third donut unless you want Google to broadcast that you're fat and utterly lacking in self control.)
But of course some form of personal privacy should be protected and defended because it is directly connected to our personal safety and the prevention of rampant fraud. Revealing your address, the whereabouts of your children, your social security number, your passwords, and bank account information can be dangerous, no matter who you are or where you live or what you do for a living. This point is often lost on high tech companies blinded by the glitter of the Internet.
So it then follows that the misdeeds of the rich and famous should be protected online too, right?
Most of us do not make our living by holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue. However, politicians, CEOs, celebrities, and the rich and famous often do exactly that (the Charlie Sheens of the world excepted). Those public figures make their money based on their image; it's what they get paid for. So if that image isn't accurate, it's a deception on the public.
So there's clearly a difference in terms of personal privacy between celebrities and rest of us little people. It's a difference, however, that seems to have been turned on its head in the Giggs and Schwarzenegger affairs.
Clearly, the protections afforded by super-injunctions in the U.K. are for the wealthy only -- who else can afford to get one, and why else would it be a story for the papers to begin with? The Twitter outing of Ryan Giggs revealed the inherent inequity and hypocrisy of protecting only the rich and famous on grounds that are questionable to begin with.
While the Giggs stories didn't go far enough, the coverage of Schwarzenegger's clearly went too far. Identifying the woman and her child served no useful purpose. She wasn't running for office or seeking publicity. The exposure in her case underscored the inequalities: Arnold will walk away from the scandal with millions in his pocket. She will not.
But does the Internet make all these privacy concerns moot? Are McNealy and Schmidt right that privacy is dead?
Not by a long shot.
We can protect certain important private information. Even in the U.S. there are laws against disseminating your medical records, and there should probably be laws addressing other private information as well.
The Internet doesn't change that, in fact, it makes it more important than ever.