Racy pictures stir up questions of legality

'The China Post' questions whether there should be moral regulations over material uploaded onto the Internet

The China Post
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Unless you eschew the media altogether, chances are you've heard about Hong Kong pop star Edison Chen's recent misadventure. The 27-year-old Vancouver-born Chen has in the past faced criticism for his "tough-boy" image and perhaps poorly-chosen movie roles, but this time the singer-actor-celebrity is really feeling the heat.

Earlier this month, photos of Edison and shots taken of of his "girlfriends" in various states of undress appeared online. The leak of such highly personal pictures occurred after Mr. Chen took his personal home computer to a repair shop, where the pictures were allegedly stolen and published online. The girlfriends, however, were not simply young star-stuck women but several of Hong Kong's major starlets -- including one who is now married. The approximately 1,300 indecent images spread like wildfire across the Web, and have by now been downloaded millions of times by millions of people.

Hong Kong police raided several homes and arrested a couple of suspects in the case, but the damage had already been done. Reputations have been ruined and several of the women pictured have slipped into deep depression. Edison Chen has since returned to Hong Kong, admitted he was the photographer, apologized to all concerned and announced his semi-retirement from the entertainment industry.

It is not this paper's job to comment on the morality of taking such photos, nor shall we comment on the obvious breach of trust involved when people cheat on their partners. Society has, however, been harmed by this unfortunate event. For one, such pictures are, in some ways, even more harmful than simple pornography because they depict well-known and beloved artists. These artists are, correctly or not, role models for many, especially the young, and to see their idols in such unflattering photographs can only be terribly confusing for young fans. But aside from the possible damage to society, further contemplation of this incident opens another issue.

While the Edison Chen saga seems to be a simple case of illegally distributed stolen property, the story raises questions about pictures and the Internet. Taiwan and the rest of the world in recent years have seen a glut of such tales involving unflattering personal pictures posted on the Web, with both famous and ordinary people. The ubiquity of digital cameras and the simple procedures for posting content online has made it entirely too easy for spiteful, thoughtless or careless individuals to embarrass others -- or themselves.

In the pre-Internet age, the law, in many Western nations at least, was much more cut and dry. If an individual chose to publish photographs in the media, an assortment of copyright, defamation and privacy laws came into play and both the publisher and the supplier of the material could be held accountable.

In those days, it was highly unlikely that any media company would agree to print pictures of, say in a hypothetical example, an individual passed-out drunk in front of a nightclub.

But today, any John or Jane Doe can take such pictures and, with the ease of a mouse click, turn the aforementioned individual into a regional or even international laughingstock.

There might be a case here for new legislation that specifically prohibits the posting of obscene materials under the banner of protecting young minds from immoral or corrupt influences. Current laws generally leave policing of uploaded images to Web site operators. The question boils down to: Should the authorities prosecute "immoral" uploaders? Some nations -- notably mainland China -- do completely censor their citizens' Internet-viewing habits. But, in a democracy, curtailing any form of public expression could potentially send a mortal blow to freedom of speech, for who gets to decide what is "immoral?" The same law that protects the public from potentially offensive photos of inebriated pub-crawlers can very easily aid a totalitarian government quash the circulation of images unflattering to the regime. As noted New York attorney Dustin Bowman told The China Post via email, "In the United States, aggrieved persons can sue using causes of action involving privacy; however, few states have designed statutes dealing specifically with posting unauthorized non-commercial images on the Internet. That being said, I think it would be difficult to fashion a statue addressing this issue without falling afoul of First Amendment concerns."

In the Edison case, the computer technician who allegedly stole the pics will probably at least face charges of theft. But in a hypothetical similar situation which did not involve theft, should charges of "corrupting youth" or "public immorality" apply? If we deem the Edison photos, which none of the participants have denied as legitimate, immoral, and enact regulating laws, will we find ourselves on the slippery slope to broader censorship controls?

In the United States, the contentious issue of the legality of flag-burning comes before Congress every so often but the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court is "that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable" (Texas v. Johnson).

Interestingly, thousands of people who did download the Edison pictures have reportedly contracted debilitating computer viruses.