Don’t Tag Me!

Facebook has long been criticized for a cavalier attitude toward privacy. If you haven't had a negative experience related to your Facebook photos, you most likely know someone who has. Often these experiences cause serious consequences for the person whose photo was uploaded. Not only does Facebook use convoluted language and legalese hidden in the terms of service, but users are also required to go through tedious and time-consuming processes in an attempt to safeguard or remove their content.

Facebook users upload more than 250 million photos every day, with a record-breaking 750 million photos uploaded over New Year’s weekend in 2010.

If you haven’t had a negative experience related to your Facebook photos, you most likely know someone who has. Often these experiences cause serious consequences for the person whose photo was uploaded. Take, for example, Ashley Payne, who lost her teaching job because of a Facebook photo that showed her drinking at a Guinness brewery while on vacation in Dublin. Or teacher’s aide, Kimberly Hester, who lost her job after a parent and Facebook “friend” found one of her photos offensive. Hester had merely uploaded a playful image with the intention of amusing one of her co-workers.

Similarly, Nathalie Blanchard, a 29-year-old Canadian, was cut off from insurance benefits after being diagnosed with major depression because the company found pictures of Blanchard on Facebook in which she appeared to be having fun. A South Carolina police officer was fired for a Facebook photo of women in bikinis posing with his squad car at a charity car wash.

Presentation Anxiety

Facebook is “like being in a play. You make a character,” one teenager tells MIT Professor Sherry Turkle in her new book on technology, Alone Together. Turkle writes about the exhaustion felt by teenagers as they constantly tweak their Facebook profiles for maximum cool. She calls this, “presentation anxiety,” and suggests that the site’s element of constant performance makes people feel alienated from themselves.

This presentation anxiety also stems from the fact that many students believe that they have no other choice but to join Facebook. They fear that, if they do not take control of their online reputations, others will do it for them. One college grad watched his future at a prestigious law firm go up in flames after the firm found a Facebook photo of him using illegal substances while still in college. Although the grad claimed that he had no knowledge of the picture’s existence, he nonetheless had no legal claims against his friend who posted it. According to basic copyright law, the person who takes the photograph — not the subjects of the photo — is the owner of his/her intellectual property.

Stories of employers and college administrators asking individuals for access to their social networks, often during an interview, abound. Young people, who are eager to make a good impression or land a job, usually hand over their password information. Indeed, one downside to the technology boom is that policy makers and government officials are struggling to play catch-up.

Recently, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two privacy bills making it illegal for employers and colleges to demand access to social media accounts. Brown says the legislation will protect Californians from “unwarranted invasions.” We can only hope that the California bills will set a nationwide precedent to protect employees’ and students’ privacy.

The Illusion of Privacy

One section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) covers anticircumvention provisions, which make it illegal to “circumvent” a technological measure protecting access to or copying of a copyrighted work. Another section gives web hosts and Internet service providers a “safe harbor” from copyright infringement claims if they implement certain notice and takedown procedures. If someone posts your image without your explicit permission, the web host must implement the “notice and takedown procedures,” and remove the image.

But despite the DMCA, users are agreeing to license their images to social network sites everyday. Most of us don’t even read the terms of service or, if we do, we feel safe clicking on “agree” after reading a sentence like this: “We (your social network or other) respect your copyright, acknowledge that you are the owner of your copyright and have in no way asked you to sign your copyright over to us.”