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Local camera click leads to unwanted global exposure

A Texas teenager poses for a snapshot at a local church event and her image ends up on a billboard in Australia--without her permission.

If you ever wondered why parents can come across as worried and cranky members of the digital world, check out Noam Cohen's Link by Link blog post, Use My Photo? Not Without Permission. Cohen tells the story of a 15-year old high school girl, Alison Chang, from Dallas who was goofing off at a local church-sponsored car wash. Her church youth counselor snapped a photo and uploaded it to the photo-sharing site Flickr, where it caught the eye of an Australian advertising agency. Next thing you know, Alison's likeness appeared on a billboard in Australia.

This is a fascinating case from a legal standpoint but I can only imagine what a nightmare it must be for Alison and her family, who are now suing over the unauthorized use of Alison's image. How would any of us feel if our kid's image suddenly popped up on a billboard, possibly in an unflattering light? The legal issues here center on the rights that a photographer can grant, versus the privacy and identity rights of the person being photographed. If you snap my photo at a birthday party, common sense would dictate that you as photographer do not have the ability to give away my privacy rights as a subject in that situation.

Flickr users abide by the Creative Commons, a licensing agreement that I actually heartily support as a way to allow creators to control the rights of their work, often granting some uses in a less restrictive way than a conventional copyright. Creative Commons board member Lawrence Lessig was served papers on behalf of a lawsuit brought by the Chang family. Lessig asserts that the photographer and Flickr did nothing wrong, and if there is a problem it arose when Virgin Mobile used the photo for commercial use.

Welcome to parenting in the digital age. Whether we use computers or not, whether our kids are online themselves or not, we all need to be aware of the information about us that is being collected, stored, shared, and used in so many ways. Technologies that seem "old" to use, such as photography, take on "new" angles once they migrate online. When possible, these new technologies call for more and ongoing communication among family members, friends and communities to negotiate these issues in real life before the information goes online.