If you’ve been on FetLife for more than about ten minutes, you’ve probably seen a warning in various places on people’s profile pages.  It usually reads something like this:

WARNING to any institution or person using this site or any of its associated sites: You do not have my permission to use any of my pictures, information from my profile or discussions, or anything I post in any of the forums or groups on this website in any form or forum both current or future without prior written consent.  You do not have my permission to copy, save, print, or repost our pictures, discussions, or information without prior written consent.  If you have done or do any of the above, it will be considered a violation of my privacy and personal property and will be subject to all legal remedies.

To give you an idea about how pervasive this “warning” is, in order to look for a copy of the text, I went down my FetLife feed and opened up the profiles of my five most recent friend additions.  Four out the five had some variation of it on their profiles.  If you are one of those people that has this “warning” on your profile, my advice to you is to get rid of it.

The thing about those sorts of warnings is that they are useless.  Actually, they’re worse than useless if it makes the person posting it think that it affords them extra protection from all of the various things that the text purports to protect the user from.  Snopes has discussed a similar warning that has made the rounds on Facebook.  They had this to say about it:

Messages about protecting your copyright or privacy rights on Facebook by posting a particular legal notice to your Facebook wall are similar to an item which circulated several years ago positing that posting a similar notice on a web site would protect that site’s operators from prosecution for piracy.  In both cases the claims were erroneous, an expression of the mistaken belief that the use of some simple legal talisman — knowing enough to ask the right question or post a pertinent disclaimer — will immunize one from some undesirable legal consequence.  The law just doesn’t work that way.

Facebook users cannot retroactively negate any of the privacy or copyright terms they agreed to when they signed up for their accounts, nor can they unilaterally alter or contradict any new privacy or copyright terms instituted by Facebook, simply by posting a contrary legal notice on their Facebook walls.

Remember: as is the case on Facebook, on FetLife, and on the Internet at large, you are personally responsible for what you post, and for all of the ramifications that what you post might have on the privacy and safety of yourself and others.  In the end, no one else is going to look out for you.  Likewise, no warning or disclaimer is going to negate or otherwise override the law, or the terms of service (you know, that document that you agree to but never actually read) for the company that is providing the venue where that disclaimer is being posted.  For instance, the legal doctrine of fair use permits the reuse of copyrighted material under certain limited circumstances.  A user’s disclaimer that more or less says, “I don’t want you to do this,” will get laughed out of court if it ever came to that.

Now when it comes to FetLife, that site is a little bit different than others in that it is something of a walled garden, i.e. there is a requirement that users register for an account on the site and agree with the community guidelines and terms of use (regardless of whether said users actually read them or not, they still apply) in order to see any user-generated content.  In order to see content on FetLife beyond the welcome screen and a few about-the-site pages, one must register.  That requires checking this box:

FetLife Terms of Use

And thus one enters into a legal agreement on how one will use FetLife.  It contains such provisions as one would expect from a fetish scene venue when it comes to matters of decorum, such as prohibitions on “outing”, disrespectful behavior, copyright violations, etc.  Of course, we all know that some people can and will go in with no intention of following any rules, and to stir up trouble.  It’s not a good thing, but it happens, and there’s really no way to gauge someone’s intentions until they’re in and we see what they are doing.  it’s not like a person intent on outing people is going to see that little warning, and say, “Oh, look at that.  Can’t out them!”  If you do believe that someone is actually going to stop based on the warning alone, then there is some swampland in Florida that I would like to sell you.  Likewise, if you’re using the warning as a form of legal immunity to engage in illegal or otherwise prohibited activities, you’re only kidding yourself.  It would be like going into a dungeon, posting a sign saying that anyone viewing a scene is prohibited from acting upon or otherwise remembering it, and then doing something in that scene that breaks the house rules and expecting that those in charge will be prevented from interfering because they see the sign.  It doesn’t work that way.

Ultimately, it all boils down to the usual rules of the Internet: once you put it out there, it’s out there for everyone to see, and it’s out there forever.  Even on FetLife, where, for the most part, a registration wall prevents search engines from seeing the content, one still shouldn’t post anything containing personally identifying information (including one’s face) that one would not want to have to later explain to one’s parents, coworkers, boss, neighbors, etc.  This is nothing novel here.  There is nothing wrong with having fetishes and with engaging in consensual activity to explore those fetishes, but unless you’re 100% “out” with everyone, you have to exercise some discretion, even in the walled garden environment of FetLife, because anyone can join, anyone can see, and anyone can right-click and save your pic on their computer, even if you say that you don’t want them to.  There’s not a thing that you can do about it.  Thus FetLife is more public than you otherwise might think or wish to admit.  However, FetLife does at least enforce the registration wall when it comes to individual image files, which is more than can be said about Facebook.

So what if you’re thinking, even with all that said, keeping the warning doesn’t hurt, and therefore think it’s just as well to leave it?  Now think about how it makes the community look.  It makes the community look like an ignorant bunch, because the people displaying those warnings think that those warnings actually mean something and stand by them for some sort of odd legal protection even though they are legally meaningless.  It also makes the communty look like a very unfriendly, prickly bunch, if everyone’s putting these harsh and confrontational-sounding warnings on their profile pages.  It’s like, “Hi, and KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF OF MY STUFF, MOTHERFUCKER!”  It doesn’t exactly endear someone to another person.

This, however, is not to say that a gentle reminder about consent when it comes to downstream usage of material posted on the Internet is unhelpful.  But rather than using that harsh, unfriendly, and confrontational “warning”, phrase it politely, in your own words.  I put this on the Site Guidelines page here:

Likewise, if you would like to use material that you find on this site elsewhere, I request that you please ask and get my consent before reusing any material found here.  No one likes nonconsensual activity, after all.

And on my FetLife page, I say this:

When posting photos, my policy is to err on the side of discretion, and to allow the subjects of photos to control where their own likenesses appear on the site.  That said, I will only post photos of myself on my FetLife account.  If you want me to take a photo of you for posting on FetLife, I will gladly send it to you to post under your own account.  This way, you control the way your own image is presented and displayed.  On that same note, I kindly request that you please allow me to post any photographs that you may have taken of me under my own account.

In other words, it all boils down to what we’ve always known about proper BDSM practice: consent.  But there’s no need to be unnecessarily harsh and confrontational when reminding people of this.  If more people would go for a friendlier, less confrontational route about this, it would make FetLife and the fetish scene in general look more like the friendly, welcoming, consent-based community that I’ve found it to be.

So when it comes to consent, both in real life and on the Internet, seek it, obtain it, and then let the flogging begin.