Privacy complaint rejected for lady ranking #3 in Google for 'epic boobs'

If you're a female human being, and your bust size has become such the object of public attention that suggestive but non-offensive photos of you turn up in a Google Images search for...well, that part of the body; and with photos in hand, a men's magazine begins a nationwide search for your identity and address, then has your privacy been violated?

In an extraordinary decision discovered earlier today by The Guardian's Roy Greenslade, the UK's Press Complaints Commission rejected the complaint of a woman whose photographs -- which she states were taken when she was an adolescent -- ended up among Google's most common image search results for the phrase "Epic Boobs." This despite the following facts: she says she was 15 when the photos were taken years earlier; the photos were uploaded to a supposedly private page operated by AOL's Bebo service back in 2006; she gave no one permission to use her image outside of Bebo; and she'd never had any contact with Loaded magazine prior to its search for "the Epic Boobs girl."

The PCC's reasoning was that since the photos had already been disseminated to Google, Loaded magazine could not have invaded her privacy. And since, thanks to Google, the young girl's image had already been reproduced in over 200,000 places, by Google's estimate, her coverage in Loaded simply made it 200,001.

"This case raised the important principle of the extent to which newspapers and magazines are able to make use of information that is already freely available online," reads the PCC's adjudication. "The Commission could quite understand that the complainant objected strongly to the context in which they appeared online: what were images of her and her friends in a social context had become proclaimed as 'pin-up' material, the subject of innuendo and bawdy jokes. It was, of course, within this context that the magazine article operated. This was an important point: the magazine had not accessed material from a personal site and then been responsible for an especially salacious means of presenting it; instead it had published a piece discussing the fact that this material was already being widely used in this way by others. The Commission did not think it was possible for it to censure the magazine for commenting on material already given a wide circulation, and which had already been contextualised in the same specific way, by many others."

A few years ago, the head of the PCC was Sir Christopher Meyer. In a 2006 editorial published by the UK's Independent, Sir Christopher said the determining factor of whether a complainant in a privacy dispute should be compensated, is the degree to which he or she has become a celebrity: "With privacy, the principle is easy enough. Everyone has a right to privacy. What that means in practice will depend case by case. Attention-seeking celebrities who try to define the terms of their own publicity will obviously have less of a right to privacy than the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus. But how much less? And is the public interest involved? And if so, how is it to be defined? At the PCC we now have a pretty sophisticated set of precedents to guide us in these matters. It is, I believe, a more coherent and useful guide to what is proper to publish than the rather higgledy-piggledy rulings that have emerged recently from the courts on aspects of privacy and confidentiality. While the courts in recent years have dealt only with a handful of cases, we have the advantage of having ruled on hundreds."

In the specific case of a minor, Sir Christopher said, the Commission should take exception: "We do not equate the public interest with whatever the public is interested in. In fact, as in the case of subterfuge, we set the bar high for a public-interest defence. In the case of children under 16, it would take an exceptional public interest to override the normally paramount interests of the child."

Amid a rising tide of citizen complaints, coupled with controversy over Sir Christopher writing a book that itself became the target of complaints to the PCC over privacy violations, he was replaced by Baroness Peta Buscombe. Upon taking over the post, the Baroness ordered an independent review of PCC operations, including looking into complaints that it had merely been acting as a buffer for the press against public outrage.

In October 2009, an article published in the Daily Mail suggesting that the cause of death of openly gay recording artist Stephen Gately may have been related to what the article characterized as an unfortunate lifestyle choice, received over 25,000 citizen complaints by the PCC's own estimates. Despite that, the PCC dismissed the complaint last February.

AOL paid $850 million for Bebo in May 2008, but last month began considering a partial sale or shutdown of the service. Recent estimates from ratings service Nielsen project that Bebo's UK user base fell from 5.8 million to just 1.8 million over the same period.

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