A photo said to show Princess Diana in the car wreck that killed her is circulating on the Web, stirring an ethical debate and prompting one Web site host, GeoCities, to delete it.
Earlier this week, a group called "Rotten," which dubs itself "an archive of disturbing illustration," added a photo to its Web site that "purports to show Diana, post-accident." An inset that could be Diana's face appears in the bottom corner of the photo, with the caption "Death of a Princess."
It's unclear whether the woman in the car wreck is Diana, and there is no credit line to the picture. While Rotten made a cursory attempt to analyze the possible authenticity of the photo, it didn't stop there. "When at such time we receive better accident photos, they will appear at this spot immediately. (If you have any, send 'em)," it says on the site.
The incident is another test of the credibility of the Internet, where content from media giants gets posted alongside that from do-it-yourselfers.
The photo sparked outrage among many Netizens. "In the U.K., we are still reeling from the loss of Diana," one of them said in an email to CNET's NEWS.COM. "The Internet shows its dark side and starts producing this rubbish."
Today, it also sparked a news story by Agence France-Press under the headline: "Group posts picture purporting to show dying princess." In addition, the Web site NewsLinx, which features links to Internet news "culled from the mainstream press," linked to the morbid photo as well.
NewsLinx linked to the picture under the headline, "Princess Diana crash photo now on the Internet--fan page." In this case, the fan page appeared to be an individual's Web site on GeoCities, which hosts noncommercial Web pages for free.
On the same page, NewsLinx offered links to a Reuters story, "GTE Net service to offer Microsoft IE 4.0," a Philadelphia Inquirer article, "Chat sites are teen hangouts of the '90s," and a Washington Post story called "Intel 'hacker' was victim of his own access."
"We felt this is something people were interested in," Richard Ord, publisher of NewsLinx, said of the photo. "We're not afraid of controversy."
Ord said NewsLinx received word of the photo by email. In explaining the positioning of the photo among the other content, he said that "99.9 percent of the time" NewsLinx links to mainstream news sites but that there are exceptions, including this one. According to him, "the picture appeared to be authentic."
GeoCities, however, took exception to the photo. When NEWS.COM called to inquire about whether the photo violated its terms of service, the photo was deleted within 30 minutes. "We took the photo off and left the site up," said Dick Hackenberg, the company's vice president of marketing. "The photo was offensive to our online community or certainly in bad taste."
Recently, GeoCities shut down a Web site that rated the looks and sex appeal of students and teachers at a Palo Alto, California, middle school. It removed them under guidelines that prohibit "blatant expressions of bigotry, racism, hatred or profanity." (See related story)
Civil liberties groups and journalists already are debating the publication of the purported photo of Diana.
The American Civil Liberties Union is worried about responses such as the one by GeoCities. "We've been concerned about other incidents where ISPs have been involved in removing people's material from their site," said a spokeswoman for the organization. "In some ways, it's tantamount to saying that somebody objects to a book in a book store, so you remove the book for all the readers."
But a representative of the Electronic Freedom Foundation added: "I don't think there's any particular legal issue unless a user group makes specific claims that 'we won't censor you.' There's certainly a question of taste, but this is the same gallows humor or interest in the macabre that follows any major death-related incident."
Photojournalists are alleging that the photo may be fake because of inconsistencies between the latest photograph and wire service photos of the Paris accident.
On the Net, there's often "no editorial control of what's up there," said James Long, a photographer for the Hartford Courant and former president of the National Press Photographers Association.
"There's no way to physically verify an electronic photo," he added. "You may be lying to history."