Her baby pictures on the potty…

BY RAJEESH KUMAR| IN Digital Media | 02/10/2016
...are not what a teenager wants her parents to post on Facebook. An Austrian girl goes to court against her parents over privacy, opening another chapter in the debate.
RAJEESH KUMAR TV explains

 

“I don’t want to live in a world where there is no privacy, and no room for intellectual exploration and creativity” – the words of US whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate how important privacy is for each individual. Privacy has been a seminal concern for many people and any attempt to breach it usually leads to an outcry.

Recently, an 18-year-old Austrian girl kicked off an interesting debate in the arena of ethics and privacy by suing her parents for uploading her childhood photos on Facebook.

In her complaint to the police, the girl argued that her parents made her life miserable by uploading embarrassing photos onto the site. “They didn’t care if I was sitting on the toilet or lying naked in the cot, every moment was photographed and made public,” she was quoted as saying by Austria’s Heute newspaper.

Though the girl requested her parents several times to remove the photos from Facebook, her father’s answer was “he had the right to do with them as he pleased”. However, the girl was not convinced and went to court.  

There has been a plethora of debates revolving around the privacy concerns pertaining to Facebook and social networking sites ever since the story was published. Is it a breach of privacy if parents post photos of their beloved children on social networking sites?

Foreseeing such an ethical dilemma, the French authorities have already taken a substantial step towards addressing this question. They have warned people that posting pictures of children on social networking sites could attract a jail sentence and a fine of €45,000 if “their offspring later sued them for breaching their right to privacy or jeopardising their security”.

This measure was prompted mainly by the possibility of paedophiles misusing  photos of children. But this French move made Facebook introspect on the issue.  Quoting one of the Facebook vice presidents, Jay Parikh, the Telegraph in the UK reported that “Facebook was considering setting up a system to notify parents who put photographs of children online without restricting their privacy settings.” 

Meanwhile, a study conducted by internet company Nominet in 2015 reveals that the average parent posts over 200 photos of their children every year, although the majority don’t check the privacy settings regularly.

The study further revealed that 17 per cent of parents have never checked their Facebook privacy settings and almost half have only checked once or twice. The motive of most parents in posting photos of their children on Facebook is absolutely positive, ie, to create a digital footprint for their child from a young age.

But let’s come back to the Austrian girl. The core of the debate is neither related to the threat of paedophiles nor the privacy settings in Facebook. The core question is whether anyone has the right to distribute one’s photographs without one’s consent, even if it is one’s parents.

The social media debate following the Austrian case was almost evenly divided between those who sided with the parents and stressed the emotions and relationship, and those who supported the girl and questioned the ethics of posting nude and embarrassing photos. 

The ethical questions raised by the Austrian girl need to be addressed within a proper privacy framework. The privacy issue has been interpreted in many ways by privacy experts and each of them has a different take.

While many of them have answered the privacy question by addressing the binary construct - private vs public - only a few have dealt with the grey areas and the areas that go beyond the binary aspect.

One privacy expert who can illuminate these grey and uncovered areas of privacy is Helen Nissenbaum, Professor of Culture and Communication at New York University. Nissenbaum offers a privacy framework called Contextual Integrity under which she argues that all information is tagged with context.

The framework comprises two aspects: the ‘Norms of Appropriateness’ and the ‘Norms of Distribution’. The former explains what information about a person is appropriate or fitting to reveal in a particular context, e.g., a professor may be highly visible to other gays at a gay bar but discreet about his sexual orientation at the university.

The Norms of Distribution refer to the people to whom the transfer of information can be done or not, e.g. friends expect what they say to each other to be held in confidence and not arbitrarily spread to others. The breach of either of these norms of information flow can be considered as a breach of contextual privacy also.

So, then, was it fair of the Austrian parents to have shared the photos of their daughter on Facebook?

As per Nissenbaum’s Norms of Distribution, they had the right to share their personal information and photos with their friends. But they do not have the freedom to share this information or photos with a third party. Hence, if a person uploads someone else’s photo, the consent of the latter is needed. Uploading a photo without their consent constitutes a clear breach of the Norms of Distribution and thus of the contextual privacy too.

Under Nissenbaum’s privacy framework the Austrian girl has a legitimate case of a breach of privacy.

The case is set to come to court in November. Michael Rami, the girl’s lawyer, believes that she has a good chance of winning the case, given the tone of the debates and the trends that have emerged globally over privacy. 

Whether she wins or not, though, the case may make parents aware of the complexities of posting pictures of their offspring. It seems clear that self-regulation by parents aimed at respecting the privacy rights of their child might be the best way to go forward.

The outcome of the case will have repercussions beyond Austria because the ruling is likely to become a benchmark in the evolution of the debate on privacy on  social networking sites.

 

Rajeesh Kumar  T.V. is  UGC MRP Research Fellow, Department of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University. Contact him at rajeeshkumar.t.v@gmail.com

 

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