And here’s a new danger from posting information on Facebook–your university might use the information to fine you for breaking the rules.

Oxford University has reportedly used photographs of students on the popular social networking website Facebook who they say have broken the University’s rules regarding conduct after examinations to charge fines. The conduct? Being sprayed by shaving cream, covered by flour and silly string, and similar offences.

The relevant part of the University’s rules (Section 10.3), which are enforced by the University Proctors, notes:

behaviour after examinations The Proctors and the local police are concerned about public safety, disruption to traffic, noise and litter when crowds gather day after day to meet candidates after their examinations are over. It is fairer to the general public and to fellow-students who may still be working in the examination rooms if these celebrations are deferred until students get back to their colleges. All candidates are therefore asked to discourage friends from meeting them outside the Examination Schools or other examination venues and to disperse as soon as possible after leaving any examination building. …

Note: each year the Proctors deal with students who spray or pour champagne (or other liquids), squirt ‘silly string’ and throw substances such as flour. If any of this lands on somebody’s clothing, the pavement or on any other property, an offence of damage to property has been committed whether or not the victim complains or consents. It is also an offence to cause litter. Where students are found guilty of such offences, the usual punishment is a heavy fine. The Proctors and other persons appointed by them can impose spot-fines of up to £100.

Yes, it’s true. Students in “formal” examination garb (Oxford students sitting exams are required to wear a uniform of sorts, including an academic gown) celebrate finishing two or more weeks of exams by being covered with flour, shaving cream, and the like by their friends. The results can be pretty amusing.

While there is certainly an entertaining aspect to this story, it does raise some interesting questions. Is the University’s use of photos of students covered with flour (with student name and date provided) to assign fines a privacy issue? Making this argument may be difficult from a practical point of view, given that the photographs were provided by the users themselves (although perhaps not by the particular students fined). While some of the students interviewed in the article reporting this development were surprised that the University had access to their Facebook profiles, it’s probably best to assume that whatever you post on a public website is just that–public. But there are some real issues about the use of social networking websites, including taking care with what information you post and the etiquette of using that information.

There have already been rumblings that users of social networking websites might regret the information that they post on the Internet in future. The usual example given is that prospective employers have been known to reject job applicants because of information found on the Web.

Given that user-generated content is unlikely to disappear from the Web, I think that the important issues to consider resolve around who is responsible for what. In other words, when is it the user’s responsibility to monitor content, and when is it the content (or carriage) service provider? These issues are only starting to be considered or addressed, but it is becoming clear that the solution will not come from one quarter only. Industry, users, and regulators all have their part to play.