Nothing stays private on Facebook: Philippine Supreme Court

Nothing is ever private on Facebook.

The Supreme Court has issued this reminder to Internet users about the perils of posting online, saying even those tagged as private never really escape public viewing, including unintended audiences.

Ruling on a case involving controversial photos of minors posted on the social networking site, the Supreme Court's Third Division cited "self-regulation" as the best defence against breach of privacy, especially among the tech-savvy selfie generation.

The high court gave a lengthy discussion on Facebook use in its 18-page decision denying a petition for habeas data filed by parents of two high school students of St. Theresa's College (STC) Cebu, citing the protection of their Facebook photos that school officials found objectionable.

Habeas data is a remedy provided to "any person whose right to privacy in life, liberty or security is violated or threatened" through the "gathering, collecting or storing of data or information regarding the person family, home and correspondence of the aggrieved party."

Graduation ban

The Facebook photos, which showed the students drinking and smoking in a bar, and wearing just undergarments on a street, prompted school officials to ban five students from marching in their graduation rites in March 30, 2012.

The photos were uploaded by one of their friends.

STC, a Catholic all-girls school described by the court as "conservative," described the photos as "lewd, obscene and immoral" and said the students had violated several provisions on conduct laid down on the school's student handbook.

The Supreme Court ruled that "STC did not violate the minors' privacy rights."

"STC cannot be faulted for being steadfast in its duty of teaching its students to be responsible in their dealings and activities in cyberspace, particularly in [social networks], when it enforced the disciplinary actions specified in the Student Handbook, absent a showing that, in the process, it violated the students' rights," it said in a ruling on Sept. 29.

The parents of four students went to court, but two later withdrew their lawsuits after reaching an amicable settlement with school officials.

The remaining complainants claimed that the school violated the students' privacy and that the punishment was excessive and did not follow due process.

The Cebu City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 14 denied the parents' petition for habeas data after finding that "the photos, having been uploaded on Facebook without restrictions as to who may view them, lost their privacy in some way."

This prompted the parents to raise the issue to the Supreme Court.

Privacy protection

In upholding the ruling of RTC Judge Raphael Yrastorza, the high court said: "It is well to emphasise at this point that setting a post's or profile detail's privacy to 'Friends' is no assurance that it can no longer be viewed by another user who is not Facebook friends with the source of the content."

The high court delegated the duty of privacy protection to online users themselves, saying court relief "requires" that "claimants themselves take utmost care in safeguarding a right which they allege to have been violated."

"It is, thus, incumbent upon Internet users to exercise due diligence in their online dealings and activities and must not be negligent in protecting their rights. Equity serves the vigilant," it said.

"We cannot afford protection to persons if they themselves did nothing to place the matter within the confines of their private zone. [Online] users must be mindful enough to learn the use of privacy tools, to use them if they desire to keep the information private, and to keep track of changes in the available privacy settings, such as those of Facebook, especially because Facebook is notorious for changing these settings and the site's layout often."

The Philippines has among the most active populations on Facebook, with some 30.2 million users as of February 2013.

In 2012, the country was ranked eighth among countries with the most number of Facebook users, nearly a fifth of whom were teens 13 to 17 years old.

Observe 'netiquettes'

"… [S]elf-regulation on the part of online social network users and Internet consumers in general is the best means of avoiding privacy rights violations. As a cyberspace community member, one has to be proactive in protecting his or her own privacy. It is in this regard that many online users, especially minors, fail," the Supreme Court said.

It urged online users, especially teenagers, to observe "netiquettes" when using social networks, noting the "widespread notion" that minors could sometimes "go too far since they generally lack the people skills or general wisdom to conduct themselves sensibly in a public forum."

The decision, penned by Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., said the level of access that Facebook allows users despite its privacy settings was a "confirmation of [its] proclivity towards user interaction and socialization rather than seclusion or privacy, as it encourages broadcasting of individual user posts."

"In fact, it has been said that [social networks] have facilitated their users' self-tribute, thereby resulting into the democratization of fame."

Thus, it is suggested, that a profile, or even a post, with visibility set at "Friends Only" cannot easily, more so automatically, be said to be "very private," the court said.

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