Social networking has been a boon for most Web users, allowing even the most non-tech savvy people a chance to connect with friends, publish photos and generally have a presence online. With some 500 million active users on Facebook, it is by far the largest social network and it has given a voice to millions who never would have even considered publishing online otherwise.
But while this has been a boon in many ways, most people are not familiar with mass media law and those who are often don’t see social networking as “publishing” worthy of such contemplation. However, Facebook is very much a public place and getting more so every day.
What you post on a Facebook, as well as other social networks, can easily come back to haunt you if you aren’t careful and it isn’t just jobs and relationships being destroyed, it’s also a matter of lawsuits being filed.
So what are some of the legal dangers that come with posting on Facebook. There are many but here are five of the more common ones.
If you post things on Facebook that are materially untrue about others and unfairly tarnishes their reputation, you can be sued for libel and it has happened before.
Though it might be tempting to think of Facebook as a private communication, a plaintiff only has to show that a third party saw the communication and it hurt their reputation. You can commit libel with something distributed to a small list of your friends the same as if you had posted it on the broader Web.
2. Copyright Infringement
If you post content that is copyrighted by others without their permission, they can, at least in theory, sue you for it. Once again, it is an infringement even if it was only distributed to a few of your friends, though that makes it much less likely that a copyright holder will sue.
I wasn’t able to find an example of a copyright holder suing for copyright infringement over a Facebook posting but it could easily happen. The suits and threats are rare now as much of the infringement likely is private but as Facebook opens up, so will the searches for copyrighted material and, along with it, the takedown filings and lawsuits.
This may be an impending wave more than a current one, but the risk is very real.
Facebook itself has a very poor privacy reputation (and has been sued over it) but users can also contribute the problem by posting private information of others, including photos that were taken at a moment where the subject had a reasonable expectation of privacy or posting private information publicly.
With Facebook enabling tagging of posts and photos, it is easy to see how a user could upload something private about another person and let them know about it, only to discover that person is not too happy about the public exposure and decides to sue.
In short, be careful what you reveal and post about others without their permission.
Harassment is defined as when someone “repeatedly behaved in a manner that was perceived as intrusive or threatening.” On that front, there is hardly a better place to harass someone than on Facebook (or any other social network).
At least some cases of Facebook harassment have reached the courts, including one case where a son sued his own mother for harassment after she broke into his account and posted as him.
The big problem with harassment is that what one person defines has harassment another might not. As such, if someone asks you to leave them alone, it is probably wise to do so.
5. Breach of Contract
Finally, this is a very broad area to consider but most people who use Facebook have other jobs and many of those jobs have rules and regulations about what one can and can not discuss in public. These are often enforced in non-disclosure agreements that are buried within the documents a new employee or contractor signs when joining up.
If you talk too intimately about your work, or anything else you’ve agreed not to talk about, you could find yourself facing a lawsuit for breach of contract. However, that can be said on pretty much anything you signed a contract to do and didn’t do, including wearing the wrong hair extensions.
In the end, Facebook is not much different legally than blogging and that’s because, in many ways, the two acts are very similar. The only difference being that Facebook favors shorter posts to a (theoretically) smaller audience. However, both still involve publishing content to a broader audience across the Web and, as such, both come with very similar potential legal pitfalls.
So it is important to treat your Facebook posting the same as you would your blogging or anything you posted to a public forum. The law isn’t going to draw much of a distinction between the two in most areas and, as such, there isn’t much reason you should either.