Safe is as safe does

There is a lot of talk at the moment about how safe personal spaces are, and about how secure our personal data is on social networking sites. Over on our online e-learning community Digifolios and Personal Spaces we are busy debating some of these questions. As I ponder these issues, I'm mindful of the movie Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks as a cognivitely challenged individual who works hard to make his way through life. When people call him 'stupid' he simply deflects them with a quote from his mother: 'stupid is as stupid does'. The meaning behind this is clear - no-one is inherently stupid - it is ultimately their behaviour that makes them so.

By the same token, I believe that no online environment is inherently 'unsafe' - Richard Clark famously argued that all media are neutral until content is placed within them. I believe this to be true. A personal online space is only unsafe for me if I behave in an unsafe manner. Giving away personal details such as your mobile phone number in an environment which is open for viewing, can definitely be considered unsafe, unless of course you are actively seeking strangers to contact you. Same goes for posting your image up on Facebook or Flickr. Some photos may capture someone in an embarrassing situation or 'compromising position' (read 'drunk and behaving badly'), but it all depends on whether that individual is intending on applying for a high profile job, or has a clean reputation to uphold, if this is actually perceived to be unsafe.

My reasoning is this - every individual has (or should have) control over the content they post to represent themselves digitally. What you choose to divulge on an open, public social networking site must ultimately be down to you. If you don't have control, something is wrong, (e.g. someone may have wrested control over some of your personal details or content, or may have posted a photo of you up onto the web without your knowledge or consent) - if that is the case, then litigation is an available option. If we each maintain control over our own content and profiles and are careful with what we divulge, the onus is then on each of us to represent him/herself appropriately.

What are your views on the safety of personal online sites? Comments are also being posted here.


Anne Marie said…
So you think that if someone posts a picture of me on Facebook I should have recourse to litigation to have it removed? Has that ever happened? What legislation covers this? Invasion of privacy?

Maybe it is our behaviour in real life that we need to think about controlling. Don't be do anything or be seen doing anything that you wouldn't be happy with your mother to see:) Could Michael Phelps complain about the recent photographs of him?
Steve Wheeler said…
Oh boy Anne Marie - I think you need to read what I wrote again. I am merely stating the facts. If someone feels their privacy has been invaded because they have been photographed and then their photo appears on Flickr, they have the right to take legal action. It has happened before and it will happen again. Most people don't mind their images being posted up - but there are some that do object.

Oh Lord, don't let me be misunderstood....
Anne Marie said…
Sorry, certainly not trying to deliberately understand you! I did read it, and re-read it. I guess I am just looking for some real life examples. After just looking it up (on Wikipedia) I understand our right to privacy to come from ECHR and to be a "right to respect for privacy and family life". So say I was out last Saturday in Cardiff and had a few drinks and started dancing on tables. I discover on Monday that one of the students was there and took a photo and has passed it round Facebook. Surely, what I did was in a public place and the documentation of the act I committed is not an invasion of my privacy. Am I wrong?

I was wrong to state that you think I 'should' have recourse to legislation, as you clarified you think that it is the case, not nedcessarily that it should be the case.
Steve Wheeler said…
No, this is a good conversation, so don't apologise. We are simply viewing this problem from different perspectives. I for one, would not dream of posting an image of one of my students for example, without their permission out of respect for their privacy. Others may not be so careful. There have been cases where individuals have sued successfully becaused they feel their personal privacy has been breaches or for example, as in the case of 'Star Wars Kid' - they have felt they have been held up for ridicule, misrepresented, or their good name has been besmirched.

I take your point that if you are out somewhere in public, and someone takes a photo of you it is not strictly 'invasion of your privacy'. However, individuals who feel their privacy *has* been violated can take legal action if they so wish. That was my point: We live in an increasingly litigous society.

In the final analysis though, it is as you state, all about behaviour, so I reiterate that each of us is still responsible for our personal data - and we should each take care and individual responsibility about what we actually divulge on our Facebook sites, etc...
Anne Marie said…
Hello again,
They may wish to take legal action but I doubt they would ahve any success. The Star Wars kid case was settled out of court, and the US has different provacy legislation in any case.
Interestingly, it may be the Data Protection Act that could be invoked rather than privacy laws (which we don't really have in the UK).

And of course, I wouldn't take or use a photo of a student without their permission, just as I wouldn'ttake one of a patient.

I am sure there must be some lawyers around who could usefully contribute to the discussion.

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