‘Star Wars Kid’ school video puts privacy rights to test

A Canadian teen’s unwanted exposure on the internet has led to a lawsuit against some of his classmates–and serves as a stark reminder why educators should teach their students how to respect others’ privacy, and safeguard their own, in the digital age.

The flap began with a moment of unadulterated goofiness, the kind of thing anyone might do with no one watching: A teen from Quebec videotaped himself in a school video lab as he pretended to wield a light saber “Star Wars” style.

But that private moment went public, very public, when classmates at his high school found the tape in a cabinet and uploaded it onto an internet file-sharing site this past spring.

Now Ghyslain Raza is known far and wide as the “Star Wars Kid,” with a fan base that only seems to be growing–even though he doesn’t want the attention.

The video shows the teen awkwardly twirling a golf ball retriever like “Star Wars” bad guy Darth Maul. The video file has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

Web sites have been dedicated to the youth. Supporters have raised money for him. And several techies have created their own “clone” versions of the video, adding sound and visual effects or placing his image in any number of backdrops–from “The Hulk” to “The Matrix.”

Many teens who post their images on the web probably would be thrilled to get this kind of attention. But Ghyslain, who made the video while doing a school project when he was 15, has said he didn’t intend for it to be seen by his classmates, let alone people across the world.

“I want my life back,” he said in an eMail interview with the National Post newspaper, a Canadian daily.

Claiming that their son has been humiliated, his parents are suing the parents of the teens who put the video on the web.

Some say the case might become a step toward setting privacy standards on the internet, which has been difficult terrain to police. But in the meantime, web surfers are having a field day with Ghyslain’s image on a multitude of sites.

Elizabeth Murphy, a production manager for a web design company in New York, says she finds herself visiting one of the sites often.

“Contrary to popular belief, I think it is not the Jedi kid’s awkwardness that keeps him in people’s hearts, but his undeniable enthusiasm for what he is doing,” Murphy says. “While I feel bad for him because he hates his newfound popularity, I revisit the site anytime I am feeling down. It just cracks me up. I love this kid!”

Experts say it’s no wonder the video has only increased in popularity.

“It resonates because we all know what it is like to have moments like that,” says Patricia Leavy, a sociology professor at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., who specializes in popular culture.

“Personally, I sing and bop along to TV theme songs,” she adds. “Embarrassing, yes. But also a part of being human.”

Ghyslain’s lawyer, Francois Vigeant, declined to comment, citing an upcoming court hearing. He said the teen and his parents, who live in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, also were declining interviews.

Meanwhile, the teen’s supporters are working on his behalf.

Andy Baio, a 26-year-old computer programmer from Santa Monica, Calif., helped lead a fund-raising campaign for Ghyslain. Others have started a petition to get him into the next “Star Wars” movie, which is currently filming in Australia.

A spokeswoman at the California-based film company would not say whether filmmaker George Lucas is considering the request.

“We are deeply saddened by this current situation and any difficulties this uninvited publicity might be causing [Ghyslain] and his family,” spokeswoman Jeanne Cole said. “We have no other statement.”

Still others applaud the lawsuit and hope it will help set stricter internet privacy standards.

“We need to ask ‘What kind of culture are we going to have?'” says Lynn Schofield Clark, director of the Teens and the New Media @ Home project at the University of Colorado. “I’m hoping we’re able to be a society where we do provide people’s right to privacy and dignity.”

But Baio warns that the lesson is “if you don’t want to risk being the next Star Wars Kid, you should be very careful about what you videotape and where you keep it.”

See this related link:

Teens and the New Media @ Home http://www.colorado.edu/Journalism/mcm/teens

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