Unwanted Social Exposure

The volcanic growth of Facebook has not gone unnoticed by people very used to being in the public eye. Prince William is rumoured to have a profile somewhere on the site, albeit under a nom de plume, various BBC journos and media celebrities can also be found interacting with their public, updating their status and sending each other fish for their aquariums. Whilst such individuals may have come to accept their images being in the public domain, many of us more insignificant mortals find ourselves increasing losing control of our online identity.

Facebook has a lauded interface for restricting privacy. One can customise their profile so that only their closest friends can view their photos, post on their wall and find out what books they have just read. This control even goes so far as to hide your Facebook presence from particular members.

Where these controls come unstuck is in the sensitive area of posting photos; a paradigm not restricted to Facebook of course. It is perfectly possible for your next door neighbour to post a picture of you on their profile featuring you sunbathing in your garden in the kind of bikini that would make Jordan blush. They can then tag this photo and share it with the rest of your street. Worse than that, there is nothing to stop someone defaming your character on their wall, something that must happen with monotonous regularity amongst Facebook’s younger user-base.

That there is nothing on Facebook to stop these actions occurring is not the end of the story. Fortunately the British and European legal system is, for once, moving quickly to adapt. Fuelled perhaps by the thought of celebrity action and the associated fees, lawyers are lining up to unleash legislation not just on the operators of such sites but on the users themselves. Of course, under such circumstance you can bet that Facebook would be defended and a recent article by Ashley Hurst (a member of the media litigation team at Olswang) suggested that e-commerce law could provide that such operations are simply hosts of defamatory material and it is the users that are responsible. Now that’s not particularly sociable of them.

It’s at times like these that we’d all do well to stop inviting our friends to become pirates and tickling vibrating hamsters and spend some time reading through the legals on the sites instead. When we sign up we’re reminded that “content that Facebook deems to be harmful, threatening, unlawful … [etc] “ should not be uploaded or transmitted. Of course, such catch-all terms and conditions can only be invoked to remove content when it has been spotted and objected-to. In the Web2.0 era this could well mean that the image has been circulated or the statement copy and pasted widely before action is finally taken at the source. The fact remains that users only have control over the content that they post and, this is often overlooked, this extends to people who have so far resisted the urge to join.

Facebook recently announced (although you may have missed it) that profiles were to become searchable from Google. Although this can be switched off by users, once again you cannot control whether your ex-girlfriend’s profile can be uncovered by your prospective girlfriend’s Google search and her bitter rants about your sexual prowess poured over and dissected at will.

All this only serves to fuel Facebook’s near-exponential growth. The only defence is ‘attack’, or at least vigilance. If you’re not a member you’ll not know what people are posting and saying about you. Best you get yourself signed up, who knows you might even uncover something delightfully salacious yourself.

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