COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

What's privacy got to do with it?

In the Internet age, societal rules are being rewritten and the notions of privacy, intimacy and what it means to be a "public person" are being crushed like cookie dough into a whole new version of themselves.

With this phenomenon arise some interesting legal issues, which were once reserved for those few who wished to become public persons and thrust themselves into the public eye. The rules of defamation are controlled in large part by a definition of the person's role in society: private or public.

Now a legitimate question is what is the "public person" status of persons who play out their real and imagined lives for the world to view across the Internet, even if no one is actually watching? In real life, you have some sense when you are becoming a public person, the roar of the crowd, booing, hisses, something! The Internet affords no such warning signs. Kids do it, the naive do it, and even wise people do it. What is becoming of the right to privacy that the Supreme Court has been protecting?

Is the video Internet really just another private place, more private than most others? Or is it the ultimate public place in which things one would rarely or never view in a traditional public place are played out for a worldwide audience? It's a legal enigma.

The Internet now affords videotape expressions that few psychiatrists might hear; one is left wondering "did they really mean to say that?" There is a faux candor built up around the wrongheaded notion that a person on the Internet is anonymous, remote and untouchable, with immunity from consequences like children fearlessly provoking caged lions in the zoo. It is, after all, just them and the expressionless video camera. But by participating, are they each becoming public persons with all that entails?

As a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon, take MaryAnne on YouTube.com, a 27-year old natural blonde with brown eyes who is, inter alia, proud to be part Portuguese. Collectively, her 56 videos have been viewed 2.5 million times, averaging 46,000 views each. Is she a public person, a celebrity, or just having fun in the privacy of her own home?

The lady can sing. She wants to share! To protect her privacy she is "YsabellaBrave," no last names, please. Where she works is an enforced mystery. Her history and background are murky. Her tools are a primitive assemblage within the utterly dark, solitary privacy of her home, of a Kodak EasyShare Z760 digital camera connected to her laptop, and karaoke CDs for musical backup. A turned up desk lamp illuminates her dynamic face and eyes. No video or audio editing of any kind is employed. Plain, raw songs delivered in one take with startling emotional content.

There are 56 videos for everyone to view. A more delightful collection of great music and humor would be hard to find. Like Elvis Presley, her untrained voice is filled with complex lilts, notes and melodies. Many songs end with an infectious laugh. No explanation will do, you have to see and hear for yourself. As an actress, she is an utterly sultry Jim Morrison in "Love Me Two Times," a charming Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend" and Betty Boopish in "Let's Misbehave."

Has this mysterious young woman transformed into a public person, a celebrity of the new media, or is she just having private fun? From the comments by others on her performances, it's clear she shares an asymmetric relationship with her admirers, fans and occasional detractors, also known as "haters." The classic asymmetric relationships are political figures with the voters; fans to the star; unrequited love for the loved one; and now it would appear, the "Internet star" with the interactive viewer.

The big difference is the level of immediate dialogue, which takes place between star and smitten. For Valentine's Day, Maryanne sings "As Time Goes By" and ends by saying "Happy Valentine's Day, guys." She believes her singing is really intended for a group of friends, albeit, a big group. Asked if she has a plan, she replies, "I haven't planned on diddly squat." The tools she is using are new, but the need for the traditional front-room entertainment filled with fun, privacy and intimacy remains the same even when the whole world looks in the window.

Will these people become public persons with all the legal consequences that entails, or will the law carve out a more careful definition when such situations present themselves in the courts of law? To protect a new means for creative expression, it appears that traditionally private matters may need to remain private even when in plain view for all to see.


Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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