PRIVACY ON THE INTERNET: How Personal Is Your Personal Ad?



Imagine watching the news one evening and seeing a story about online scams. Now imagine that your photograph was shown as part of that story, even though you have nothing to do with the subject matter.

This is precisely the situation that members of a small Internet agency “Elena’s Models”, found themselves in. A top-rated Australian TV program featured ads and photos from “Elena’s Models” to visually illustrate a story about immigration scams. However, the persons interviewed in the TV story had nothing to do with Elena’s Models, none of them used services of Elena’s Models, nor were they members of Elena’s Models. The photos and personal ads broadcast in the TV program were used without prior authorization with the administration of Elena?s Models or the authors of the ads.

Elena Petrova, the founder of ?Elena?s Models?, is justifiably upset. She says, “Did you know that any information published on the Internet is considered to be in “public domain”? This means media is legally allowed to use images or snapshots of your website, or your photo as illustration to their stories, regardless of what the topic of their story is.” Ms Petrova has even launched a web site – ( to bring attention to this situation in hopes of sparking a reform of this unfair TV news industry practice.

What started all this?

On Sunday May 11, 2003, the Australian TV program “60 minutes” used the web pages of a small Internet agency “Elena’s Models” and photos of the members of “Elena’s Models” as illustrations to the story about immigration scams, “Russian Roulette”. The persons interviewed in the story had nothing to do with Elena’s Models, but this was not disclosed to the viewers, who were left to believe it was Elena’s Models web site that was involved in the scam.

In a phone conversation 60 minutes (Channel Nine, Australia) admitted that none of the persons depicted in the story was connected to Elena’s Models. Nevertheless, the name of the agency Elena’s Models was recognizably displayed in the very beginning of the TV program “Russian Roulette”, and the snapshot of the website displaying the name “Elena’s Models” was used on the website of 60 minutes as illustration to the transcript of the story “Russian Roulette” investigating “heartless immigration scams”.

Petrova contacted the Australian Broadcasting Authority, and received word that an investigation has been opened, however the ABA told her that if anything is published on the Internet, a TV program is ALLOWED to use this material in the broadcast, since it is “in the public domain”, and such use will not be considered as invasion of a person?s privacy, even if it is a personal ad.

Lachlan Habgood, the assistant manager of Investigations Section of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, points out: ?In relation to your complaint concerning the broadcast of material relating to a personal or private affairs, the ABA notes that the material to which you refer is freely available on an Internet website for perusal by anyone person wishing to do so. The ABA considers therefore that the material is in the public domain. As the person has given implicit permission for their image to be posted on a website for the purposes of being made available in the public domain, the ABA is of the view that the broadcast of such material, in this instance, does not constitute an invasion of their privacy.”

In other words, if you placed a personal ad on the Internet, and posted your photo, this is no longer your private affair and the use of this information in a TV broadcast will not constitute an invasion of your privacy.

This could come as a surprise to millions of Internet users that placed their ads with online personals, in search for a partner. Large Internet personals such as announce having 8 million active profiles in their database and more than 857,000 paying subscribers. Search for the keyword ?personals? on brings up 9,960,000 pages. Total number of users of Internet personals is estimated as 20-30 million. Most Internet personals allow free browsing of the ads, which often include identifiable photos and bios.

Ms. Petrova has some words of advice for anyone with a web site or with personal photos available online: “People are not even aware that their personal ads can be broadcast on the national TV to millions of people and that such use of their ads would be allowable by regulations for a TV broadcast in Australia. That’s worrying. Internet personals have ads for hundreds of thousands of people. How comfortable would those people feel knowing they might see their picture on TV tomorrow?”

To read more about the ongoing developments, visit

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Elena Petrova can be contacted by phone at +6.17.55787977 or through the website

Lachlan Habgood, the assistant manager of Investigations Section of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, can be contacted by phone at +6.12.93347877 or through the ABA website at


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