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Last Updated: Friday, 29 February 2008, 15:55 GMT
Private data, public interest?
By Chris Vallance
Reporter, BBC iPM

Pile of newspapers, BBC
Many newspapers take text and pictures from social network sites

The use of material taken from personal profiles on social networks by newspapers is to be the subject of a major consultation undertaken by industry watchdog the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

This comes in the wake of increasingly numbers of newspaper stories that include images and text taken from sites like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook.

But the subjects of press reports are not always happy with the use of content they have uploaded.

Tim Toulmin, director of the PCC, in an interview with BBC Radio 4 says the organisation was getting complaints from people about material, "that is being republished when they themselves are the subject of news stories".

Mr Toulmin says it would be useful to establish principles to guide the press in their use of social network content.

"It's down to the PCC to set the boundaries in a common sense way about what sort of information it is acceptable to re-publish," he says.

To that end the PCC has commissioned research by Ipsos MORI into public attitudes.

The newspaper watchdog wants to discover if people are aware that material they upload could be used in newspaper reports.

It also wants to discover if people would change their behaviour if they knew that information about them could be published in the media.

Public or private?

There has been some public resentment of the use of social networks by the press.

Woman taking photo with mobile phone, BBC
People may post less information if they knew it journalists might use it
In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech school shootings some felt that journalists had invaded what were essentially private online spaces. The behaviour of a few pushy reporters gave rise to the term: "digital door-stepping".

More recently in the UK, media interest in the spate of suspected suicides among young people in Bridgend has lead some in that community to express concern about the way social network profiles were being used by journalists.

Bridgend Welsh Assembly Member Carwyn Jones, said: "It does raise questions of the sensitivity of publishing those photographs for the world to see."

Local MP, Madeleine Moon went further saying that some in the community had complained of reporters posing as young people on social networking sites in order to obtain quotes.

Ms Moon, who has spoken with the PCC, stressed she had no evidence to substantiate these claims, but she did feel that there was a clear need for guidelines for the press.

But the wider issue of how reporters should use information taken from social networks is far from clear-cut.

Taking a photo from a social networking site is, some argue, a less traumatic way of obtaining images and personal detail, than a reporter visiting the home of a grieving family. Digital door-stepping can be much less intrusive than the real thing.

Mr Toulmin says the matter is one of degree: journalists do have a right to use publicly accessible content and the public have responsibilities when they post it.

And many who publish to social networks, in Mr Toulmin's view, do not regard that information as private but actively want to share the information.

He said: "Half the charm is accumulating as many people as possible to be their friends...there will then be an argument about the extent to which you yourself are concerned about people knowing that information."

Similarly if information is already in the public domain there would be little point in denying the press access.

Clear case

Mr Toulmin also believes any new guidelines should not prevent the press reproducing content clearly in the public interest to publish.

The PCC has already ruled to this effect. It supported the right of a local newspaper to enter an online community undercover and to republish an image found there, because the complainant, a police officer, was the subject of a criminal investigation.

Memorial service at Virginia Tech, Getty
Some papers covering the Virginia Tech shootings used information from social sites
Mr Toulmin says social network sites have a duty to educate users about the implications of uploading personal information to public, or semi-private spaces.

"They will I think be forced to go further in educating people," he says.

Guidance from the PCC will only apply to newspapers.

With the most popular blogs surpassing the circulation of many local papers, and competing effectively for advertising revenue, this is not a small concern.

Mr Toulmin acknowledges this is important, but adds: "The press do have obligations over and above those that govern the online community."

But not everyone in the media shares that view: Bob Satchwell of the Director of the Society of Editors thinks the press should be subject to no greater regulation than the public.

Says Mr Satchwell: "Traditional media is already regulated in various ways; broadcasting by the statutory regulation, the press by the PCC, so there are far greater constraints on traditional journalists and media than there are on the wider public, so called 'citizen journalists' and bloggers."

However, there are some restrictions that apply to all who use social network content.

The British Journal of Photography in a recent article concludes that publication of images on social networks does not automatically grant rights to republish photograph elsewhere.

In the end copyright law may resolve part of this issue, if the deliberations of the PCC do not.

Personal data privacy 'at risk'
21 Feb 08 |  Business
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31 Dec 07 |  Technology
Complaint over 'suicide' coverage
22 Feb 08 |  South East Wales
Protests force Facebook to change
30 Nov 07 |  Technology
Taking control of your digital ID
01 Nov 06 |  Technology
Landmark ruling on phone footage
15 Aug 07 |  Scotland

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