Access by journalists to the Facebook profiles of people who have died and the republication of Tweets which were exchanged between friends are two of the issues currently being considered by the Press Complaints Commission.Facebook allows subscribers to delete content pages and even remove their whole account but the company has yet to decide what policy should be adopted over access to profiles on the death of a subscriber.
Peta Buscombe, chairman of the PCC, told a seminar held by the Westminster Media Forum (22.3.2011) that Facebook was being “incredibly helpful” in working out the degree to which the media should continue to have access to people’s information after their death.Families often wanted Facebook profiles to be preserved to maintain the deceased’s online presence but equally there was concern about continued access to personal and private information which did not justify being republished in public interest.She said that information which was publicly available on line could still be considered private and the PCC – “a flexible, non bureaucratic solution” – was deft enough to keep up with changes in technology and the market place and to continue to set the boundaries for journalists.Newspapers could use information from social networking sites but the PCC had to consider how private the information was intended to be; the context in which the information was given; whether it might have been uploaded as a joke and should not be republished in tragic circumstances; whether consent had been given; and whether republication was taken out of context in a way that was designed to embarrass. Such fundamental failures to respect private lives could be a serious error of judgement. The PCC was criticised by David Allen Green, a lawyer and journalist, for its failure to deal with newspapers which republished Tweets shared between friends. He cited the example of a civil servant whose Tweets were exposed by the press when they had only been circulated to her 700 followers. The individual involved had no reasonable expectation her Twitter account would be accessed by newspapers and the press could not automatically justify use of material simply on the basis that it had previously appeared on the internet.But when Green said he would advise a client not to “even bother” contacting the PCC, Lady Buscombe said users of Twitter had to realise they were using a public media.Any of the civil servant’s 700 followers could have republished her Tweets without consent and her information could have been “global” within minutes. “It is all about confronting naivety; young people should know this when they use Twitter, you have to appreciate that what you say is very public”.Richard Allan, EU director of policy for Facebook, backed up the PCC’s warning. He said their subscribers could delete any item of content or their whole account and Facebook would remove that information from the company’s servers. “But if you publish information to everyone on Facebook, other people can take that information and republish it. We can offer deletion in our own environment, but not in every environment where information is republished.”Christopher Graham, the UK’s Information Commissioner, responded to demands at the seminar for a system of Highway Code symbols to help social networking users understand rules on protecting their privacy. “There is a teenage constituency out there which needs help; kids need to be told in simple language that it is not clever to let it all hang out on line.”