A couple of months ago my son, who is six years old, performed a solo routine at his school talent competition. I couldn’t attend but my wife filmed it on her mobile phone so I could watch it later. She also put it on Facebook for friends and relatives to see. Unfortunately, we hadn’t given any thought to the privacy settings and it was ‘shared’ amongst people we didn’t know. When we became aware of this we quickly changed the permissions and forgot all about it.

However, one morning, a few days later, we received a text from a friend telling us that the video was ‘trending’ on Buzzfeed and, as we hastily conducted some Google searches, it became apparent that we had a problem. There were bizarre stories about it on sites such as Huffington Post and Mail Online and these were being replicated around the world. Additionally, the clip was featuring on YouTube in a big way, where uploads were receiving many thousands of hits. There was no getting away from it: the video of our son had gone viral.

How do you suppress a viral video?
Our initial reaction was one of nervous amusement but we became concerned as we scrolled through the user comments on some of the sites. Most were complimentary but not all were. It seemed the clip had originally been picked up by a gay website called The Gaily Grind, presumably because my son’s performance might be considered ‘camp’ if you are inclined to characterise a six year old in such a way. Unfortunately, many people seemed prepared to do exactly that and a number of the remarks were homophobic.

Naturally, we were unhappy about him being associated with such abuse and wanted to stop it. But how? Like most people, we’d never considered the question of how you might suppress a viral video before. The simple answer – and what we blindly started to do – is that you need to contact all the websites that are featuring it and ask them to take it down. But it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

When a day is a very long time
Although a few sites complied straight away, the responses of others ranged from grudging to non-existent. We learned quickly that tweeted requests will generally be ignored, even by hip media organisations, and emails will often be, too. It took days to get a reply from Buzzfeed, for example, at a time when it felt particularly crucial for them to act. Yahoo News were similarly slow: four days and several attempts at making contact. Perhaps this doesn’t sound too bad but with a viral video twenty-four hours is a very long period of time and, for a mainstream website, can equate to tens of thousands of additional views and shares.

There were many more and most made us wait: MTV.com, Dailypicksandflicks, Gawker, Hollywood Life. People.com claimed to have “an editorial policy of not removing content” but quietly suppressed all the comments. Celebrity Cafe protested that our son was “quite adorable”. At least these sites did respond eventually: others ignored us completely. Our strategy therefore evolved into a focus on YouTube and Facebook. Most of the stories linked to videos here; if these were disabled, the articles would be rendered harmless because – although the clip had been discovered by friends, neighbours and teachers – our son was nowhere identified by name. After a few days this seemed to be working but then, with horrible inevitability, a new story appeared and the whole thing flared up again. Around this time we received our first approach from a licensing agency. They promised us “a college fund from that video alone”.

I’ve described what happened from the perspective of a parent: as I write, there are still a few images of our son around and we know the clip remains out there but it feels over – for now. What conclusions do I draw from the episode as an information professional?

Firstly, it has made me realise how helpless individuals can be when dealing with huge internet and media organisations. Most people will never feature in a viral video but, as we live more of our lives online, some of us may have a legitimate reason to want content removed and it really is not clear where you start. Centralised advice about how to complain would be helpful; a code of conduct which required clear information on websites and enforceable response times would be even better.

Bear in mind that I had some cultural capital to draw on. I work in an academic library and was able to conduct searches to identify stories and to navigate websites for likely people to approach. I could also call upon the advice of a friend who works in the media. Not everyone will have these skills or contacts but you would have little chance of getting anything removed without them. Even with these, it was a difficult, stressful and time-consuming task.

Google and privacy
The other lesson I’ve learned is that copyright trumps privacy in the online world. What had started the problem – our careless posting of the video – was also what saved us. It meant that we had ownership of the clip and that we could prove it. The importance of this became apparent during our dealings with YouTube (effectively Google). When you make a complaint about YouTube content you have to give a reason. The first time, without really thinking about it, we chose ‘privacy’ and included a few lines explaining what had happened. The rejection email came back within minutes of our submission. It said that they were “unable to identify a violation of our Privacy Guidelines in the content reported”. In other words, if your child is filmed in a public place and the clip, of which he or she is the sole subject, is shared against your wishes, linked to by some of the world’s biggest websites, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people and the subject of derogatory comments, Google will not consider this a breach of your privacy. If, on the other hand, you can show that it is your video, they’ll take it down almost straight away.

The problem was that, for us, the matter had nothing to do with ownership: it was entirely a matter of privacy. We simply didn’t like our son being exposed to the world in this way. Numerous sites had published film and images of a young boy without stopping for a minute to ask who the child was and the assumption seemed to be that as the clip was already out there, it was fair game. Our correspondence with People.com shows this quite clearly. They did not dispute the fact that they were running a story about our son or that there were homophobic comments associated with it. Instead, they argued that because the film itself was hosted elsewhere they had no responsibility for its content even though it was embedded on their page and they’d written a big article about it. They must be confident that this is the correct legal position. But is it right?

Librarians and privacy
Most discussions about privacy tend to focus on protecting users’ personal data from the state and private companies, and librarians have been a strong voice in these debates. Our case was slightly different: more to do with privacy from the media and, indeed, from other internet users. This kind of privacy is perhaps more tricky for our profession because we naturally hesitate when it comes to any measures that suppress information. However, as a result of our experiences, I do believe that there should be a procedure for removing material from the web in certain cases. The EU’s “right to be forgotten” ruling is one attempt to provide this protection. The Directive may be flawed but we need to continue to search for solutions because currently, if you are unlucky enough to lose your privacy online, you will face a fight to regain it – and you’ll be very much on your own.

Image by Sean MacEntee