Facebook Privacy Is So Confusing Even the Zuckerberg Family Photo Isn't Private

Mark's sister got a little sensitive last night over a photo of the Zuckerberg clan celebrating the holidays — the public outing of which may say as much about Facebook as it does about its first family.

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If you thought the new privacy settings popping up on your Facebook news feed over the holiday weekend were confusing, just ask Randi Zuckerberg. The sister of Facebook's founder got a little sensitive last night over a photo of Mark, Randi, and the Zuckerberg clan celebrating the holidays — the public outing of which may say as much about Facebook and the reality of sharing as it does about its first family. We're here to explain why her complaints were both justified and not so much, but first, here's how it went down:

Zuckerberg, celebrating December 25 with her family, posted this photo Tuesday night on the new and aptly named Poke app, which Vox Media marketing director Callie Schweitzer saw and put on Twitter with the following caption: ".@randizuckerberg demonstrates her family's response to poke. #GAH" Like, as one of those half-commentary, half-joke kind of tweets.

That prompted the following reaction from Zuckerberg:

Schweitzer, who is not friends with Zuckerberg and just subscribes to her public posts, apologized...

...then deleted the tweet at Zuckerberg's request — albeit by wrapping her continued apology in a plea for normalcy:

Wait, so if it was private, how did a stranger get access to the Zuckerberg family photo in the first place? And if Facebook's privacy settings are too confusing for a Zuckerberg, how are the rest of us ever supposed to post anything that's truly, completely private? We went looking for some answers:

How did Randi Zuckerberg's not-friend get access to a private photo?

Schweitzer saw it on her news feed, thinking that Zuckerberg posted it to her public page for subscribers to see. That was not the case, as Zuckerberg's little freak-out proves. It's possible, however, that Schweitzer saw it because she is friends with another one of the Zuckerberg clan:

Thus demonstrating one of the more confusing privacy settings on Facebook. Randi has indicated that she only wants her friends to see photos that she has posted. But the way Facebook works, friends of your friends tagged in a photo album also see the entire roll, unless you choose otherwise in the settings of the album posted. (It's not a universal setting.) The term "friends" in this album at right indicates my friends and all the friends of people tagged in the post. Changing that involves clicking "custom" and unchecking a box that reads "friends of those tagged."

Okay, but even if Zuckerberg had posted the photo to her public profile, would that have made it okay for someone to take it public? 

So, technically, no. People still retain copyright to photos that they post on Facebook. If Zuckerberg wanted she could take that claim to court and sue Schweitzer, as explained in this Texas Center for Community Journalism article. (Schweitzer, a PR employee of a tech company, probably had more immediate concerns than that.) Sometimes, however, it is acceptable for the media to use photos intended for a smaller audience, according to a Press Complaints Commission paper, which reads:

It can be acceptable in some circumstances for the press to publish information taken from [social media] websites, even if the material was originally intended for a small group of acquaintances rather than a mass audience.

This is normally, however, when the individual concerned has come to public attention as a result of their own actions, or are otherwise relevant to an incident currently in the news when they may expect to be the subject of some media scrutiny.

It's unclear if the Zuckerberg photo falls under that category, or, as the paper continues, "is innocuous."

But you said "technically"...?

Yeah, so, the thing about "privacy" and Facebook and all that, is that these photos are somewhere on the Internet, or a magically disappearing new photo-sharing app, for everyone to share, regardless of the rules. People will find photos they declare "meaningful" and post them elsewhere — "fair use" is a vague term in the sharing economy, whether you're a member of the media or not. So Zuckerberg's photo may no longer exist on Callie Schweitzer's Twitter feed, but Buzzfeed still posted it on its website, and it's pretty hard not to find this morning on lazy holiday Facebook news feeds. The photo is out there. People have seen it. Law suits can't stop that.

So the lessons here is twofold: Facebook privacy settings are too confusing, and if you really don't want intimate photos out there, don't put 'em on Facebook. But also, don't expect to hide something if you do — everything can be shared and re-shared these days.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.