Thursday, October 14, 2010

Viral Embarrassment: Revival of Privacy Torts Through Social Media

Privacy invasion is not what it used to be. The old version, though not in any way acceptable, was often limited to the eyes of the peeper or in some cases the speed of manual photography. The new version often involves a video recorder the size of a pen and a high speed internet connection. Thus, it is both easier to record privacy invasions and easier to distribute the content. The sudden, viral embarrassment can be devastating, as we saw recently with the Rutgers student who committed suicide.

More locally, a Monroe man was recently arrested for voyeurism after he secretly recorded his sexual encounters with multiple women. He expressed surprise to detectives, as he "didn't think it was a problem because he used the recordings for his own enjoyment and never shared them or uploaded them to the Internet," according to the Seattle Times. Somebody give him a gold star.

Privacy torts have almost gone out of style. For one thing, the constitutional free speech protections on the publication and distribution of information can be a steep hill to climb. This sounds silly, but it's true, mostly because many private things can be construed as "a matter of public interest." Second, these cases center almost entirely around emotional and psychological distress. Not until recently was it possibly to catastrophically and permanently impact a person's life within seconds and without the safeguard of a second (or sober) thought. With the new ease of recording and uncontrollable distribution, I expect privacy torts to come back into favor.

The following are some privacy torts with very basic definitions:
Intrusion upon private affairs: unreasonable prying that is objectionable to a reasonable person.
Publication in a false light: places the plaintiff in a false light that is objectionable to a reasonable person.
Public disclosure of private facts: akin to publication in a false light, except for truthful content; disclosure of content a reasonable person would find objectionable.
Outrage: more commonly known as intentional infliction of (extreme) emotional distress.

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