Similarly to what is happening in other EU Member States’ courts, Portuguese courts have been struggling with the application of traditional legal concepts to the online context. Just recently, in a decision which I addressed here, it considered that those having in their possession of a video containing intimate images of an ex-partner are under the obligation to properly guard it and the omission to practice adequate safeguard are condemned as a relevant omission.
Thus said, there is one particular decision which was issued by a Portuguese appealing court last year that I failed to timely address and which concerns the very specific rights of image of children in the online context. Considering the amount of pictures that appear on my Facebook wall every time I log in on my account and the concerns expressed by the upcoming GDPR in regards of the collection and processing of data referring to minors of sixteen, I would like to address it today.
The court at stake confirmed the decision of the court of first instance, issued within a process of regulating the parental responsibilities of each progenitor, which forbid a separated couple to divulge on social media platforms pictures or information identifying their twelve years old daughter. It severely stated that children are not things or objects belonging to their parents.
One would expected that a court decision would not be necessary to achieve the conclusion according to which children have the right to have their privacy and image respected and safeguarded even from acts practised by their parents. In fact, one would hope that, in the online context, and considering their specific vulnerability and the particular dangers facilitated by medium of the Internet, their protection would be ensured primarily by their parents.
Ironically, the link to the news referring to this court decision was greatly shared among my Facebook friends, most of them with children of their own. The same ones who actually happily share pictures of their own kids. And who haven’t decreased the sharing of information involving their children since then.
It is funny how some people get offended or upset when someone posts online a picture in which they are not particularly favoured or of which they are embarrassed and are quick to require its removal, and do not wonder if it is ethical to publish a picture of information about someone who is not able to give his/her consent. Shouldn’t we worry what type of information would children – our own, our friend’s, our little cousin or nephew – want to see about themselves online in the future?
Every time I log in my Facebook account, there is an array of pictures of birthday parties, afternoons by the sea, first days at school, promenades in the park, playtimes in the swimming pool, displays of leisure activities, such as playing musical instruments or practising a sportive activity… In a particular case, it has been divulged that the child had a serious illness, which fortunately has been overcome ever since but which received full Facebook graphic and descriptive coverage at the time of the ongoing development.
I have seen pictures where my friends’ children appear almost naked or in unflattering poses, or where it is clearly identifiable where they go to school or spend holidays. Many identify their children by their name, age, school they attend, extracurricular activities… In any case, their parenthood is quite well established. I always think that, in the long run, it would permit the building of an extended and detailed profile for anybody which has access to such data. And, if you had read any of my other posts, you know by now that I am not exactly referring to the Facebook friends.
More worryingly, these details about the children’s lives are often displayed on the parents’ online profiles, perhaps due to simple distraction or unawareness, without any privacy settings being implemented. Consequently, anybody having a Facebook account can look for the intended person and have access to all the information contained on that profile.
I do not want to sound like a killjoy, a prude or a moralist. I get it, seriously, I do. A child is the biggest love and it is only human to want to proudly share his growth, development and achievement with relatives and friends. It has always been done and now it is almost effortless and immediate, at the distance of a click. In this regard, by forbidding the sharing of any picture or any information regarding children, the abovementioned decision seems excessive and unrealistic.
Nevertheless, one should not forget that some good sense and responsibility is particularly required in the online context, considering how easy it actually is to lose control of the purposes given to the published information besides the initial ones. As many seem to forget, once uploaded on an online platform, it is no longer within our reach, as they can be easily copied or downloaded by others.
Thus said, while it is certainly impossible to secure anonymity online, the amount of information that is published should be controlled for security, privacy and data protection purposes.
Anyway, this common practice of parents sharing online pictures and information regarding their children makes me wonder how companies such as Facebook, and other platforms focusing on user generated content, who process data at the direction of the user and, consequently, who unintentionally have to collect and process personal data regarding children below the age of sixteen, may be asked to comply with the new requirements of the GDPR in that regard.
If it is to be lawful if and to the extent that consent is given or authorised by the holder of parental responsibility, and if, as the Portuguese court have understood it, parents are not entitled to dispose of their children’s image on social media, a funny conundrum is generated. If the parents cannot publish such information, they will not be able to authorize it either and, consequently, children/teenagers won’t be able to rely on their parents’ authorization to use social media.