Privacy Implications In Social Networking

We are the information generation. We have the world at our fingertips. I can't take two steps outside without seeing someone on their iPhone or Blackberry, and it seems like every coffee shop, book store, telephone pole and fire hydrant broadcasts more wireless internet than Howard Stern does four-letter words. Online hangouts like MySpace and Facebook offer a great tool for reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, but for some people, the things they say or do on these social networking sites may come back to haunt them.

Just ask Lara Buys (22), Jessica Binkerd (22), or Joshua Lipton (20). All were sentenced to at least two years in prison for DUI-related incidents, and they all could possibly have walked away on probation if not for the photo presentations made by prosecutors at sentencing -- photos that came from the defendants!

In Buys' case, the prosecutor was reportedly prepared to recommend probation for an alcohol-related crash that killed her passenger. He looked at her MySpace page while preparing for sentencing and was shocked to find recent photos, posted after the fatal accident, showing her drinking alcohol. Comments on these photos joked about her drinking, and this evidence moved the prosecutor to seek incarceration over probation. The result: two years in prison.

Binkerd was also charged with a fatal DUI, and at her first meeting with her attorney he cautioned her to take down her MySpace page. She ignored his advice and he was shocked when prosecutors presented a pre-sentencing report containing recent MySpace photos of her out partying with friends. Binkerd was sentenced to more than five years in prison.

The photos presented against Lipton at sentencing, posted by someone else and linked to him on Facebook, didn't even show him drinking alcohol. He was at a Halloween party, dressed in a prisoner's uniform with a name tag that read "JAIL BIRD". The judge was not amused by Lipton mocking the possibility of going to prison a short time after the car accident that left a 20-year-old college girl in the hospital for weeks. He called the pictures "depraved" and sentenced Lipton to two years in prison.

Granted, none were doing anything illegal in any of these photos, but they still offered damaging character evidence. They made a strong impact on the judges in these cases, and clearly influenced their sentencing decisions. These individuals should have been in a 12-step program, and they should have sought counseling to deal with the trauma of having injured or killed people with their recklessness. They absolutely should NOT have been out partying, drinking and having a good time.

In 1998, then-VP Al Gore called on Congress to implement an "Internet Bill of Rights". More than a decade later, it still doesn't exist.

The fact is that the things we say and do online are permanent. Once something gets posted to the internet, you may never be able to remove it completely. People look for these things -- whether prosecutors, employers or your new girlfriend's nosey father. If they find it under your name, they might as well have found it under your bed . . . You own it! We all have a right to privacy, but it's absolutely crucial that you recognize that it's your responsibility to protect that right for yourself.