Should Internet Privacy End At Death?

Nikki Catsouras evening news 5.15.09

A battle between a California family and the state's legal system could see a resolution in the coming days, more than two years after controversial photos from a teenage girl's fatal car accident landed on the Internet and sparked a heated debate over the right to privacy for someone who has died.

CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy reports a court ruling is expected soon in the case that's exposed the dark side of the Internet and uncovered the pain of the Catsouras family, who say they've been forced to constantly relive the death of their 18-year-old daughter, Nikki, who was killed during a high-speed crash in 2006.

Nikki was driving close to 100 m.p.h. on Halloween night when she clipped another car, flipped across the median and crashed into a toll booth. Very little remained of the Porsche she drove and the condition of Nikki's body was so disturbing that the coroner would not allow the Catsouras family to identify it.

However, days after the accident, millions of people saw pictures from Nikki's crash on the Internet after at least one California Highway Patrol dispatcher allegedly e-mailed photos of the scene to friends. From there, the photos spread very quickly and landed on the Internet.

"I didn't understand it initially," said Christos Catsouras, Nikki's father. "I didn't understand it…[I said] 'what do you mean there are pictures?'"

The most disturbing photos were of Nikki's nearly decapitated head. Catsouras said someone e-mailed him one of those pictures.

"Sick, just horribly sick," he said.

Today, a search of "Nikki Catsouras" on Yahoo! returns nearly 3 million results with numerous sites hosting the crash scene pictures.

Her three sisters fear seeing Nikki's picture online.

"I don't go on the Internet unless I have to for school and stuff like that...that's it," Danielle Catsouras said.

The family sought privacy for themselves and their late daughter by suing the California Highway Patrol. A court initially ruled that privacy rights do not extend to the dead. The family appealed, further sparking the debate over privacy and first amendment rights.

Online expert Michael Fertik said new laws are needed to protect privacy on the Internet.

"Photos leak, comments get spread around, rumors get spread around. It happens to regular, undeserving people all the time," he said.

People, even those dealing with death images online, are generally protected by free speech - a reality that has made the Catsouras family realize the difficulty in fighting cyberspace.

"These Internet predators that are harming us, that won't take the photos down, have more rights than we do," said Lesli Catsouras, Nikki's mother.

According to UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, "When you give people freedom, they sometimes use it in ways that are offensive - and even in ways that are even disgusting."

A ruling on the family's appeal is expected in the coming days.