THE issue of the invasion of privacy on the internet cannot be ignored and should be tested in court, a leading Scottish human rights lawyer said yesterday after videos of friends of Jack McConnell's son misbehaving at the First Minister's official residence were posted on the web.
The two clips - understood to have been filmed on a mobile phone by friends of Mr McConnell's son, Mark, during a visit to Bute House in Edinburgh - show the boys wearing a white bathrobe and a floral kimono-style dressing gown before diving onto a bed and drinking from a miniature bottle of vodka.
Mr McConnell and his son were shocked to discover this week that the images - taken a year ago - had been put on the massively popular YouTube website, free for download by the organisation's 72 million users.
Mr McConnell and his son Mark, who was unaware the films had been made, were both said to be "very, very unhappy".
"The very sad thing is that after all efforts to keep my son and daughter out of the public eye, my son has been let down by a couple of friends in an incident he knew nothing about", the First Minister said.
While both videos have now been removed from the California-based website, Edinburgh-based human rights lawyer John Scott said he expected a spate of test cases on privacy and the internet as lawyers sought to establish a balance between privacy and technology.
"This is probably an area where the law has not kept pace with technology - there will be court cases within the next several years looking at these issues and maybe in ten years time we will be clearer on the answer.
"Even to give us some basic idea of a law of privacy in this country will require celebrities bringing cases when their photographs have been taken. I think it would be good to have the courts looking at privacy in a wider sense than they have had to deal with so far."
The incident is just the latest story to stem from the soaraway popularity of YouTube, bought last month by search engine Google for 883 million. While the site attracts huge numbers of users, some critics believe the ability to upload homemade videos has a more sinister side.
John Carr, new technology adviser to children's charity NCH, said he believed the explosion in video-sharing encouraged reckless behaviour.
"I'm absolutely certain that the fact that YouTube and similar places exist is almost an incitement for kids to do it, to get their five minutes of fame", he said.
"Rapid uploading of video and mobile phone film is making it all possible. Websites ought to take more responsibility for allowing these things to be put up there because it is an encouragement for kids to do dangerous and stupid things."
YouTube's own rules state that users should not post video clips containing pornography, dangerous or illegal acts, or clips that involve invasion of privacy. It undertakes to remove this kind of material once notified about it - a policy in the internet world known as "notice and take down."
While many internet companies employ staff to monitor areas of websites like chatrooms, the sheer volume of traffic to YouTube makes it difficult to police in practice.
While YouTube undertakes not to carry clips promoting dangerous activity, it was yesterday carrying a number of videos illustrating "ghostriding" - a dangerous craze in which teenagers start a car, then ride it by jumping on the bonnet or roof, leaving the inside of the car unoccupied.
Video sharing is also of increasing concern Scotland's teachers, who often have to deal with the anti-social downside of the craze behind school gates.
The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) shortly plans to issue its own guidance to schools on mobile phone use. EIS spokesman Brian Cooper said: "We have very serious concerns about the way mobile phones can be abused within schools, both in the classroom and in the playground. We've seen some fairly well-publicised examples of bullying in the playground, and there's also the issue of privacy of teachers and pupils within the classroom setting.
"There is really no national guidance in Scotland on the use of mobile phones in schools."
The area of privacy and video sharing presents new difficulties for online companies who want to cater for trend to keep their customers. AOL UK, which has 2.1 million customers, plans to introduce a video sharing part of its site next year and is looking at the potential issues.
Jonathan Lambeth, AOL UK's director of communications, said the company had traditionally operated the notice and take down guidelines on posts to its message board, but the introduction of user-generated video created fresh difficulties.
"One post in a bulletin board is a different matter to a ten-minute video. We're not in the position to be law enforcement for example, we're not in the position to have a hundred lawyers sitting there constantly reviewing everything."
Mr Lambeth said AOL's legal and policy team were "looking closely" at the issue of video sharing but it was likely the policy of removing offensive content after being contacted by users would continue.
The Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA), the trade company that represents Britain's online companies, said it did not believe new laws were required.
Brian Ahearne, spokesman for the ISPA, said: "Any content that infringes the law would be treated in the same way, whether it was pictures, text, video or sound.
"Notice and take down has been very successful in this country and it has been a self-regulatory method."
While the craze for video sharing has dominated recent headlines on the issue of privacy, the issue initially arose over e-mail - spectacularly highlighted by the ability of private messages written using company e-mail systems to suddenly find themselves circulated around the world.
One of the most infamous demonstrations of the power of digital sharing arose over an e-mail written by law firm employee Claire Swire six years ago. Swire, employed by law firm Norton Rose, sent an e-mail to a colleague describing a sex act. The leaked note was copied in turn to ever-wider groups of recipients and eventually went on to be read by millions.
Many companies set e-mail policies which accept a degree of personal use by employees. However, they have the right to monitor staff e-mails and can dismiss employees for unacceptable use.
Why everyone has a fundamental right to privacy
BRITAIN has no privacy act which automatically protects citizens. In practice, however, privacy actions can be brought under article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence".
It means people can be filmed anywhere which is considered a public area or to where the public have access - for example, city streets, shopping centres and railway stations. Such public filming becomes illegal only if it causes the person being filmed to fear for their safety, or might constitute a breach of the peace. Illegality is clearer in the case of incidents like so-called "happy-slapping", where the event taking place constitutes assault.
Different considerations apply where filming takes place at a place where the public would not have the right to walk in.
Leaving a party in a pub would be different to a private dinner party at a person's house where those present would not expect cameras to be present.
Privacy issues where one private citizen films another are different to the systems set up to regulate the behaviour of media organisations. Newspapers agree to be bound by the rulings of the Press Complaints Commission on complaints about intrusion and inaccuracy, while Ofcom adjudicates in TV and radio complaints.
Sex, lies and videotape ... nothing is sacred on the web
CELEBRITIES such as John Leslie and Paris Hilton have learned firsthand about the power of the internet, with embarrassing videos of them circulating on it.
A video of Abi Titmuss in bed with Leslie, the Edinburgh-born television presenter, and another woman was widely distributed across the web, helping the former nurse to instant fame.
The Baywatch star Pamela Anderson and her then-husband, Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, also suffered red faces when a sex video they made was stolen from their home, only to appear on the internet.
A similar fate befell singer and hotel group heiress Paris Hilton when a former boyfriend, Rick Salomon, distributed a sex tape the couple had made.
Office workers have also been at the centre of internet storms.
Lucy Gao, a London financial services worker, suffered an e-mail nightmare when invitations to her 21st birthday party at the Ritz - including high-handed instructions on dress code and gifts - were forwarded worldwide. But Joseph Dobbie, a web designer from Berkshire, became a romantic celebrity after an e-mail to a woman he met at a party went global.
Dobbie wrote how Kate Winsall had made "time stand still". Winsall's sister passed the e-mail to friends, and eventually Dobbie received bouquets and brickbats from as far afield as America, South Africa and Australia.