It seems like the leaking of nude photos of famous women has become a routine occurrence, a perhaps-inevitable consequence of the social media age and human error. But the publications of two sets of topless photographs of celebrities this week, a phone camera photo actress Alison Pill intended for her fiance, Jay Baruchel but accidentally tweeted publicly, and a set of paparazzi shots of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, illustrate that while we may have come to expect to see women in public life naked, we’re a long way for establishing where the zones of privacy lie—and how far we should go to enforce them.
When Pill accidentally Tweeted out a playful picture of herself topless in bed, she apologized, but didn’t agonize. “Yep. That picture happened,” she tweeted. “Ugh. My tech issues have now reached new heights, apparently.” Baruchel added “My fiancee is an hilarious dork. #imustjgladitdidnthappentomefirst…Smartphones will get ya.” Pill may be embarrassed, but both she and Baruchel seem to have accepted that her mistake is the kind of inevitable risk people take when they distribute intimate shots of themselves on pieces of technology that are perhaps too powerful for our own good. Nobody’s suing. Nobody’s outraged. It may not have been tasteful for news outlets to publish the picture after Pill released it, but no one suggested it was a gross violation of privacy for them to do so, or that the photograph itself tarnished her reputation.
By contrast, the pictures of Kate Middleton sunbathing that the French magazine Closer published weren’t taken by her and leaked, or hacked, accidentally tweeted, or as was the case with pictures of her brother-in-law, Prince Harry, naked after a game of strip pool, taken by so-called friends and sold. They were taken by paparazzi photographers. Closer maintains that Prince William and his wife were on a balcony that was visible from the street, though “full view of a public road” may mean rather different things to the naked eye and to one enhanced by an extremely long-range telephoto lens.
While strict British press laws have generally protected the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge from the publication of photos of them in private moments at home, Closer apparently felt secure enough in its interpretation of French privacy laws to print the pictures, though it may face a suit from the royal family. But individual countries’ speech, publication, and privacy laws mean much less in the age of the internet, and while Afghanistan may demand that YouTube be blocked in response to the anti-Islam video that’s contributed to protests in a number of Middle Eastern countries, privacy violations are hardly likely to spark similar complains. It’s not just the internet—camera technology, be it embedded in smartphones or available to enhance a DSLR body, makes the terms of existing law up for debate.
That gets at a larger issue. Press and privacy laws, whether we think they’re desirable or not, function less to prevent the publication of the images of famous people than to help establish the market for them. When celebrities sue magazines and newspapers that print images like the ones of Middleton, the speed with which they act and the damages they request set precedents that help publications calculate whether it’s worth it to run the pictures, whether they can sell enough copies and garner enough clicks to make the cost of the pictures and the cost of the damages worth it. But those laws don’t, and never have, curbed the efforts of professionals to get pictures of famous women or of amateurs to sell them, and they certainly can’t protect us from mistakes in handling the photos we take of ourselves. Alison Pill will probably take better care with her camera phone in the future, and the leak may dispel whatever curiosity existed about what she looks like naked. But Kate Middleton has a bigger problem: it’s one thing to try to affect the supply of pictures of her, when the conversation about demand is the one that we’ve always needed, and that we’ll never meaningfully be able to have.