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Is there any recourse for victims of online photo memes?

Is there any recourse for victims of online photo memes


Private companies that own social media streams and channels juggle a broad range of take-down demands and other content issues such as copyright infringement, high-stakes privacy invasion and online harassment. But it can be difficult to eradicate viral content like photo memes altogether.

"We don't tolerate bullying or harassment on Facebook and Instagram, and remove content that appears to purposefully target people with the intention of degrading or shaming them," the company said in an email when asked about memes.

While community standards and guidelines do exist on many sites, including newly spelled-out rules on Facebook, routine photo meming may not include outright threats, hate speech or behavior that draws the attention of those in charge, such as a pattern of stalking or harassment targeting individuals identified by name, location or through other revealing details or leaks of Social Security numbers, phone numbers and street addresses, some Internet watchers said.

"It's not that there isn't an ethical problem, and a real problem as a society we should wrestle with, but law just wouldn't intervene and the First Amendment would say we don't stop it," said Danielle Keats Citron, a research professor of law at the University of Maryland and author of the book "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace," out Sept. 22 from Harvard University Press.

But a movement in Europe has taken hold in defense of the so-called "right to be forgotten" that has free speech and privacy activists alike paying attention. The European Court of Justice appeared to support the legal concept for people who want to force the removal of old, irrelevant or false material determined to infringe on their right to privacy.

The court, the highest in the European Union, sided last year with a man in Spain who had asked Google to eliminate from its search index information about some long-paid debts. It ruled that Google can be compelled to take that step, but the company so far has limited removal in the specific case to its Spain service, leaving the material readily searchable worldwide.

The ruling has broad implications in the tightrope walk between online privacy and free speech across the EU and around the globe, particularly in the United States, where free speech protection is deeply ingrained.

"It's very hard. We've had unauthorized use of photographs since we've had photographs. It's much easier to go after somebody who uses pictures for clearly commercial purposes, but once you get outside of the commercial realm, when you're talking about political or artistic expression, in this country we get a lot more reluctant to intervene," Grimmelmann said.

Not all photo meming is tragic and not all sharers are evil-doers. Some subjects or initiators take it as good fun, embracing — or trying to, at least — their accidental Internet celebrity.

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It's very challenging. Hopefully people exercise compassion when asked to remove things. 

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