Monday, January 07, 2008

Guardian: we have right to publish Facebook info

In response to readers' complaints, the Guardian has announced that they have the right to print personal information from social networking sites in the public interest:

The fact that information is more or less publicly available may not be a complete answer to all arguments about privacy. Privacy is about intrusion rather than secrecy and the question is whether you have a reasonable expectation that something is private, rather than whether you have done or said something in public. These concepts are not easy to apply to social networking sites where the point of the exercise is to share information with others.

I think the Guardian is wrong on both the details and the fundamentals. How is a photo from a student Hallowe'en party of an individual who only later entered public life in the "public interest"? How can a desire to share information with friends be translated into a desire to see private photographs published in a newspaper read by millions of people around the world?

We saw a similar plundering of Facebook and Myspace sites after the appalling murder in Perugia last November. Who knows what effect that has had on the potential for a fair trial of the accused, or the lives of those peripherally involved?

As Chris Marsden, Lilian Edwards and I said in our GikII conference paper last summer, the privacy issues raised by social networking sites are far more complex than many in the media would like to believe.


Ellen Helsper said...

Completely agree with you on this point Ian.

I have had several discussions with journalists about this topic. Some of these problems might arise due to the lack of control over the boundaries of public life online. People have more than two different 'privacy settings' in offline life which is not reflected in the way most websites are designed.

In the quote you give it says that privacy is about the reasonable expectation of the person who 'publishes' or 'communicates' information to others. While in real life we can talk to our friends in public with the reasonable expectation that no one will be snooping in on our conversation this is not the case on line. While people can overhear our conversations when we are having a coffee on a sunny day outside on a terrace or when we, on a rainy day, are in a shopping centre we still do not consider that public information and journalists do not treat it that way. I would think many users of social networking sites interpret the 'public' space of these sites in the same way.

Information on these sites seems either public or private but there is no semi-public space as there is online.

Perhaps Facebook, Myspace or other social networking sites should design a tag that says: "This information can only be used for publication with my explicit permission." In fact, I think that should be the default setting and that people should be able to opt out if they feel that what they put on their social network site should be public and publishable by third parties.

I realise that this statement also complicates our own work. In fact, the other group of people with whom I have had discussions about this topic is with academics. Social scientist would love for all social network information to be public so that it can be used as data in research. However, I think that unless the person has given specific permission for someone to use the information for research purposes academics should not use it. I realise that I disagree with many other scholars on this.

One of the problems ofcourse is that the default option is for all information to be public (not restricted to friends and open for all to use for whatever they want). Perhaps the default should be that everything is of the record until someone explicitly says that it is not.

Ian Brown said...

Thanks Ellen.

An interesting related discussion over here.