Instagram makes us all paparazzi, but we’re not all celebrities

If Instagram is helping birth a new breed of paparazzi, we might need a new breed of privacy law to counteract it.
As an examination of the evolving economics of snapping celebrity photos, Jenna Wortham’s Tuesday New York Times blog post about how a recent candid pic of Beyonce spread across the internet is pretty revelatory. Lurking below the surface, though, I think there’s an even bigger story about how easy it is to snap and publish photos of everyone — not just celebrities — and for those photos to spread further and faster than ever before possible.
Just recently, for example, some relatively harmless (albeit juvenile) “big dongle” jokes put two unwitting conference attendees in the public eye and cost one of them his job. He wasn’t on stage; he was sitting in the 10th row during a talk. The woman who tweeted their images and her complaint ultimately lost her job, too, but her misfortune doesn’t cover his rent.
Even ten years ago, that woman wouldn’t have had a cellphone with a camera and an internet connection and a platform to spread the pic to thousands of Twitter followers — and their followers — in seconds.
I’m not certain privacy laws created at the dawn of the photography era and advanced during the print-media era are well suited to protect our solitude and anonymity in the Instragram era. I actually wrote about this in September 2011, but now seems like a good time to re-raise some of the tough legal questions that phenomena such as self-publishing, social media and viral content raise. Here are some situations where the social web confuses traditional definitions of public and private, and publication versus publicity:

If a celebrity’s friend tweets a photo of that celebrity smoking pot in his own house, is that information protected because it’s newsworthy?
If I’m an individual who simply wants to keep to myself — no Facebook, no Twitter, not even an email address — is writing about me on a personal blog or Facebook page, or uploading (and/or tagging) photos of me, “highly offensive to a reasonable person?”
Even if a disclosure is highly offensive, does publication via social media constitute publicity? What if the publisher only has 3 friends? Or 100? Or 2,000?
Does something going viral change a publication among friends into publicity?
What if a Flickr photo from an intimate dinner with friends, not highly offensive, but potentially embarrassing just because someone is ugly, goes viral and the subject becomes a laughing-stock? What’s the recourse?

You can insert Instagram, Tumblr or Pinterest into those example and the questions remain essentially the same.
And with photos, especially, there’s a lot to consider:

[T]he confluence of facial-recognition technology, cloud computing and big-data processing could soon make it possible to determine a person’s name and any publicly accessible information about them via a mobile app. Nefarious types with some data-science skills could predict your Social Security number knowing just your name, age and hometown. And it all starts with a single photo on Facebook.
For someone who has intentionally kept a low profile online to avoid sharing personal information, the advent of such technologies completely undermines that personal decision. Far from being just a face in the crowd or a guy at the end of the bar, anyone with a mobile phone and $4.99 app could know more personal information than that person would ever share willingly. All because his friends are sharing the details of their own lives online.

A Google Image search for "fat guy speedo." Public? Yes. Fair to be presented to the entire world with one click? I don't know.

A Google Image search for “fat guy speedo.” Public? Yes. Fair to be presented to the entire world with one click? I don’t know.

For us everyday, non-celebrity types, going out in public used to provide anonymity because we were just another face in the crowd. A dinner or party with some friends, even a family reunion, used to be a relatively private affair. Now, we’re just an Instragram post away from being part of the digital record and possibly the subject of public ridicule.
It used to be there was public and then there was public. There was private and there was private. For better or for worse, social media and smartphones are blurring those lines. Maybe we need some boundaries.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Zurijeta.