Privacy in Social Network Sites

Privacy and Identity-relevant Information in Social Network Sites

Not verifying lies on Facebook, media get sued for breach of privacy

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An interesting case that has been prominently in the news quite a while ago, has gained renewed attention. In May 2008, British newspapers, as well as bloggers, mentioned that a party in Spain was thrashed because the organizer, a 15-year-old girl, posted the event on Facebook. The story was that the event spread quickly through the Social Network Sites and uninvited guests ruined the party and even stole objects.
Recall this paragraph:

VVIDE: Facebook Party Trashed

What started off as an innocent 16th birthday party turned in to a huge free for all[,] as 400 [gatecrashers] turned up drunk and started throwing TV’s, tables and other household goods in to the swimming pool, breaking doors and destroying carpets.[…..] How did this happen[,] I hear you ask, well[,] Jodie posted details of the party on Facebook and Bebo[,] two social networking sites and unfortunately included a full address of where the party was. In the details Jodie called it “party of the year” and said “Theres gone be a lot of alcohol, an amazing DJ.”

After the fact, the girl posted details of the party trashing on her profiles on the respective Social Network Sites. However, the mother of the girl claims that the posts on Facebook and Bebo are all lies. The Independent writes:

Mother sues over tale of ‘drunken party’ lifted from Bebo – Home News, UK – The Independent

But Jodie Hudson’s lurid description of the party on the social networking website Bebo, subsequently carried in a number of national newspapers, turned out to be fantasy.

So what recourse do people take when media spread false information about them? They sue the media for defamation. The accusation would be based on libel or, because it concerns private facts, public disclosure of private facts. This is exactly what happened:

Mother sues over tale of ‘drunken party’ lifted from Bebo – Home News, UK – The Independent

Jodie’s mother, Amanda Hudson, is suing six national newspapers for defamation and breach of privacy after they ran stories based on her daughter’s exaggerated claims about her party, [..] The case is expected to have far-reaching consequences for third parties who use or publish information from social networking sites. Lawyers say it could place a duty on all second-hand users to establish the truth of everything they want to republish from such sites.

And this is were it also gets interesting from a moral perspective. Knowingly disclosing untrue information with the intention to harm people is obviously morally wrong. The reporters in this case could have verified any of the facts by calling the police or asking for police records. The website posts mention involvement of the cops, so there must have been records of this.
This was just sloppy work from journalists, but what if you don’t know or don’t expect that the information is untrue? Prohibiting people to publish because they can’t verify the facts could chill free speech. Unknowingly spreading untrue information about people could still harm them. Even if there is no specific harm inflicted (such as lies about one’s reputation), this prohibits the person to engage in shaping his own moral personality.
The question here is really: when can a person be expected to unknowingly disclose untrue information about someone else? Should there be a reasonable attempt of the discloser to verify the information? And here, we have the problem with defining ‘reasonable’, and this will always happen on a case-by-case basis.

Consider the criteria for verifying the truthfulness of information, mentioned in the article:

Mother sues over tale of ‘drunken party’ lifted from Bebo – Home News, UK – The Independent

[In this case, there was] no legitimate public interest in publishing material from the site. [..] Mrs Hudson says that, because the information was inaccurate, the papers cannot rely on the [defense] of fair comment.[…]. [Also,] Mrs Hudson said her daughter has also suffered greatly because of the breach of her privacy

Also, mention the defense of fair comment. This comes again down to the question whether or not the media could reasonably easy verify the information. One could argue that the journalists should have been more careful, as it is well known that Social Network Sites contain fake information. See the Friendster case about fake profiles (Fakesters).

The claim of breach of privacy also is a difficult one. Social Network Sites are seen as not fully private spaces and the subjects on these website engage in self-disclosure of information. They disclose the information to a network that is surely not totally private. I have always wondered why people disclose sensitive information so easily, perhaps because the contextual cues are less present. This has been a topic of one of my earlier Dutch weblogs.
Take the example of the Facebook Group for girls that post pictures of themselves in a drunk state onlin:

Young women drink, party, post – CNN.com

What you won’t find on this page — called “Thirty Reasons Girls Should Call it a Night” — is humiliation and embarrassment.

The lack of understanding of the risks for this behavior on a long term are evident:

Young women drink, party, post – CNN.com

Many photos on the site are accompanied by full names and the colleges the women attend, apparently without much concern that parents, or potential employers, will take a look.

I will follow this case closely, as the results are very relevant for how we deal with information on Social Network Sites.
I recommend reading Daniel Solove’s book ‘The Future of Reputation. Gossip, rumor and privacy on the Internet‘ for more dilemmas concerning self-disclosure of information.

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Written by davidrip

July 16, 2008 at 11:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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