Using social nets for news stories part 76

Imagine the scenario: a student heads out to a Halloween party, complete with obligatory ghoulish make-up and devil horns and, one would imagine, a good time was had by all. So good that friends stick the photos up on Facebook and liberally tag the student. A few months later, the picture unexpectedly appears on the front page of a national newspaper to illustrate a story. The student has not given his permission for the photo to appear. Nor, you imagine, have the friends. Does the student have the right to get angry? Is this an invasion of privacy? After all, the photo was taken many months ago, and even when it was posted on Facebook, one would assume the student expected it only to be viewed by his 'friends'.

Now add the following into the scenario. The student is Bilawal Bhutto, son of the late Benazir, and newly elected leader of one of Pakistan's biggest political parties, and the photo is used in conjunction with this story. Do the same questions still apply? Is this an invasion of privacy or does it now become a matter for the public interest?

These are the questions that Guardian readers' editor Siobhain Butterworth grapples with in today's paper. Her most interesting musing is that:

"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."

In many respects, these are questions I asked last April, when considering the Virginia shootings and in particular the death of student, and distinctly unfamous, Gavin Britton in Exeter. Again, in the latter case, quotes and pictures were liberally lifted from his MySpace site.

The issue hasn't advanced much from last year, bar that national papers are now starting to consider the implications. But there's two interesting questions here: given that Facebook is a largely public social networking site, would either our hypothetical anonymous student or Bilawal Bhutto have a case for invasion of privacy (or even breach of copyright?), and at what point does privacy on Facebook stop and public interest begin, if indeed there is such a thing as privacy on Facebook?

The Guardian's argument that printing a picture of Bhutto was in the public interest certainly carries weight. Now, if we assume that, like Gavin Britton, our anonymous student died and this death was front page news, is this in the public interest when those who posted and tagged the photo on Facebook reasonably expected it would remain within their circle of friends? And what if the student was just loosely connected to a newsworthy event, but a journalist took wall posts and photos from his profile without as much as a how do you do, then claimed it was in the public interest?

As I wrote before, we still have a grey area here as to what is acceptable and what isn't. One journalist may baulk at stealing from a Facebook profile, another may take the courtesy to ask, while a third may just take without asking.

The most sensible advice to celebrities and public figures who have social networking profiles would be to lock down the privacy settings to the highest possible level. If the person in question isn't prepared to do this or this isn't practical, such as for politicians wanting to make themselves more accessible, then said person shouldn't write or share anything online that they're not happy with everybody seeing offline.

Sadly, for your non-famous user, both pieces of advice also stand. If you're not comfortable with somebody, anybody, seeing what you've put on Facebook then, unless you're 100% comfortable with your privacy settings, then don't put it online. The internet's been a liberating, open social tool. Perhaps now the limits of openness are starting to come to the fore which, for me, is a shame.