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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.

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Internet law professor Michael Geist examines the shift from locking down content to locking down the network.

A padlock and key

ISPs are increasingly adding content filtering software to their networks

As digital technologies and the Internet began to emerge in the mid-1990s, many content companies responded by betting on the ability of technological protection measures to re-assert the control that was rapidly slipping from their grasp.

The vision of control through technology required considerable coordination – the insertion of encryption on content distributed to consumers, cooperation from electronics makers to respect the technological limitations within their products, and new legal provisions to prohibit attempts to pick the new digital locks.

A decade later, the strategy lies in tatters. Many content owners have dropped digital locks after alienating disgruntled consumers fed up with their inability to freely use their personal property.

Electronics manufacturers have similarly rebelled, frustrated at the imposition of artificial limitations that constrain their products and profitability.

To top it off, the US architect of the legal strategy last year acknowledged that the legislative initiatives to support the digital lock approach have failed.

Network police

Prof Michael Geist (Michael Geist)
Large US ISPs such as AT&T have inexplicably promised to develop new content filters on their networks.
Michael Geist

In recent months, a new strategy has begun to emerge. With the industry gradually admitting that locking down content does not work, it has now dangerously shifted toward locking down the Internet.

The Internet locks approach envisions requiring Internet service providers to install filtering and content monitoring technologies within their networks.

ISPs would then become private network police, actively monitoring for content that might infringe copyright and stopping it from reaching subscribers’ computers.

The support for locking down the Internet revives an old debate – the appropriate role and responsibility of ISPs for the activities that take place on their networks.

French filtering

Nicolas Sarkozy, French president

French president has plans for country-wide ISP filtering

As the content owners were promoting legal protection for digital locks in the 1990s, the ISPs were supporting legal frameworks that treated them as the equivalent of common carriers that transferred data across their networks without regard for the content itself.

While that approach ensured that ISPs did not take an active role in monitoring or filtering Internet-based activity, the recent move toward a two-tiered Internet – one in which the ISPs themselves dream of distinguishing between different content as a new revenue source – revived the notion that ISPs could be called upon to play a more active role in monitoring and blocking content.

With content owners frustrated at the failure of digital locks, last year they seized on this by renewing their focus on the role of the ISP. This movement has been most prominent in Europe, where last summer a Belgian court ordered an ISP to block access to a site alleged to contain copyright infringing materials.

More recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a plan that would mandate country-wide ISP filtering of copyright infringing content.

Although a similar pan-European proposal was defeated earlier this month, few believe that the issue is dead, particularly given the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s claim last Thursday that 2008 will be the year of greater ISP responsibility.

Content filtering plans have also begun to emerge in North America. Large US ISPs such as AT&T have inexplicably promised to develop new content filters on their networks and are discussing an implementation plan with content owners.

In Canada, some cultural groups are openly eyeing content filters as a mechanism to adapt Canadian content rules to the online environment, while others have expressed strong support for legal rules that force ISPs to accept heightened “responsibility” for the conduct of their subscribers.

In light of this pressure, some fear that mandatory content blocking could sneak into domestic legislation, despite the likelihood that such laws would face free speech challenges and run the risk of creating a locked-down, censored Internet.


Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at http://www.michaelgeist.ca.

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By AOIFE WHITE, AP Business Writer 

BRUSSELS, Belgium – Record labels and film studios cannot demand that telecommunications companies hand over the names and addresses of people who are suspected of sharing copyright-protected music and movies online, the EU’s top court ruled Tuesday.

But European Union nations could — if they want — introduce rules to oblige companies to hand over personal data in civil cases, the European Court of Justice said.

The court upheld the Spanish telecom company Telefonica SA‘s right to refuse to hand over information that would identify who had used the file-sharing program Kazaa to distribute copyright material owned by members of Promusicae, a Spanish trade group for film and music producers.

EU law does not require governments to protect copyright by forcing companies to disclose personal data in civil legal actions, the Luxembourg-based court ruled.

They could draft national rules to change this, but they will then have to balance the right to privacy against property rights, a court statement said.

Both are fundamental rights, the court said, and governments will need to find ways to reconcile them and allow copyright holders seek some kind of compensation.

A Spanish court had asked the European court to give guidance on the case after Promusicae complained of Telefonica’s refusal to hand over details identifying the people who used the computer addresses linked to the illegal downloads.

Telefonica claimed Spanish law only allows it to share personal data for criminal prosecutions or matters of public security and national defense.

The EU ruling is important because courts across Europe have been moving in different directions.

A Belgian court last July said a local Internet provider should install blocking software to stop illegal downloads within six months — while a German court in August refused to order Internet providers to give record labels information identifying file sharers.

A music industry group, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, said record labels would push on with their campaign against Internet piracy and the court had confirmed the need to have effective tools to tackle illegal copying.

“Copyright theft on the internet is the single biggest obstacle to the growth of the music business today,” said IFPI head John Kennedy.

“The judgment means that music rights owners can still take civil actions to enforce their rights, and it has sent out a clear signal that (EU) member states have to get the right balance between privacy and enforcement of intellectual property rights and that intellectual property rights can neither be ignored nor neglected.”

The European branch of the Motion Picture Association — which represents American film studios such as Universal, Walt Disney, Paramount and others — welcomed the ruling as balanced because the court had held up copyright as a fundamental right alongside the right to privacy.

The MPAA claimed in a 2005 study that U.S. film industry lost $6.1 billion to piracy worldwide that year, most of it outside the United States.

Millions of people use file-sharing software to download both legal and illegal copies of albums, films, TV episodes, computer programs and even books.

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By AOIFE WHITE, AP Business Writer 2 hours, 55 minutes ago

BRUSSELS, Belgium – IP addresses, string of numbers that identify computers on the Internet, should generally be regarded as personal information, the head of the European Union‘s group of data privacy regulators said Monday.Germany‘s data protection commissioner, Peter Scharr, leads the EU group preparing a report on how well the privacy policies of Internet search engines operated by Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others comply with EU privacy law.

He told a European Parliament hearing on online data protection that when someone is identified by an IP, or Internet protocol, address “then it has to be regarded as personal data.”

His view differs from that of Google, which insists an IP address merely identifies the location of a computer, not who the individual user is — something strictly true but which does not recognize that many people regularly use the same computer terminal and IP address.

Scharr acknowledged that IP addresses for a computer may not always be personal or linked to an individual. For example, some computers in Internet cafes or offices are used by several people.

But these exceptions have not stopped the emergence of a host of “whois” Internet sites that apply the general rule that typing in an IP address will generate a name for the person or company linked to it.

Treating IP addresses as personal information would have implications for how search engines record data.

Google led the pack by being the first last year to cut the time it stored search information to 18 months. It also reduced the time limit on the cookies that collect information on how people use the Internet from a default of 30 years to an automatic expiration in two years.

But a privacy advocate at the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, said it was “absurd” for Google to claim that stripping out the last two figures from the stored IP address made the address impossible to identify by making it one of 256 possible configurations.

“It’s one of the things that make computer people giggle,” EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg told The Associated Press. “The more the companies know about you, the more commercial value is obtained.”

Google’s global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, however, said Google collects IP addresses to give customers a more accurate service because it knows what part of the world a search result comes from and what language they use — and that was not enough to identify an individual user.

“If someone taps in ‘football’ you get different results in London than in New York,” he said.

He said the way Google stores IP addresses meant one of them forms part of a crowd, giving valuable information on general trends without infringing on an individual’s privacy.

Google says it needs to store search queries and gather information on online activity to improve its search results and to provide advertisers with correct billing information that shows that genuine users are clicking on online ads.

Internet ‘click fraud’ can be tracked down by showing that the same IP address is jumping repeatedly to the same ad. Advertisers pay for each time a different person views the ad, so dozens of views by the same person can rack up costs without giving the company the publicity it wanted.

Microsoft does not record the IP address that identifies an individual computer when it logs search terms. Its Internet strategy relies on users logging into the Passport network that is linked to its popular Hotmail and Messenger services.

The company’s European Internet policy director, Thomas Myrup Kristensen, described the move as part of Microsoft’s commitment to privacy.

“In terms of the impact on user privacy, complete and irreversible anonymity is the most important point here — more impactful than whether the data is retained for 13 versus 18 versus 24 months,” he said.

But neither of the search engines received a pat on the back from Spain‘s data protection regulator, Artemi Rallo Lombarte, who criticized them for not trying to make their privacy policies accessible to normal people.

Their privacy policies “could very well be considered virtual or fictional … because search engines do not sufficiently emphasize their own privacy policies on their home pages, nor are they accessible to users,” he said, describing the policies as “complex and unintelligible to users.”

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