The Social Networks: Privacy and the Law

As Facebook begins its new “Launching Season” and prepares to bombard users with new products and site enhancements (like Skype-embedded chat), there is a lingering question of what potential new privacy concerns will stem from the launch, possibly landing the social networking site in hot water yet again. 

Facebook is no stranger to privacy concerns, which has in the past led some users to quit their accounts. Internet privacy is not a new issue, and neither are privacy concerns regarding social networking sites. But it remains imperative that people understand the laws which may or may not protect them stemming from their Facebook actions or privacy settings.

For instance Dawnmarie Souza was fired by her employer after posting negative comments about the company and her supervisor. The National Labor Relations Board subsequently sued the woman’s company stating the woman’s negative comments were protected speech under federal labor laws, and the company opted to settle the case instead of proceeding to trial. However, this is not a judicial opinion: Souza very well may have lost in court. Not all speech is protected, as one cannot “incite imminent lawless action” or defame someone.

A new “Fired by Facebook” page has even emerged as a forum for users to post stories about being fired because of posts on Facebook and other social networking sites. Travis Megale, the page “creator,” posted a story in mid-June about how Conner Mcilvenna had been fired from his job for his wall post about the Vancouver riot that resulted from the Canucks’ Stanley Cup loss in the NHL playoffs. Mcilvenna simply said, “Vancouver needed remodeling anyway…” His boss, Justin Reitz, did not see the humor, and did not want his company to be associated with Mcilvenna’s statement. Although this incident occurred in Canada, would a similar statement like this by an American be protected speech? And what about a profile picture or other photos?

The last privacy issue with Facebook emerged from its new “Places” function, which reveals where users are located. It is only a matter of time before John Doe is fired from his job because he, or even his friend, “checked” him in at the baseball game when he was suppose to be at home on sick leave. On whom would John Doe blame this? Is it unfair to be fired for this? Does he have a cause of action against his employer or even his friend? It seems that this would be no different from taking sick leave and running into your boss at the game, or even his seeing you in a highlight on SportsCenter.

At the end of the day, social media consumers must evaluate their concerns logistically. What level of privacy can an individual reasonably expect on these social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace? One thing is certain: When an individual makes personal information available to a third party, they effectively relinquish ownership of that information unless the information is given with an explicit stipulation that it should remain private. Information submitted to mass audiences on social media websites is not subject to the latter qualifier.

In sum, this is why it is important to opt-out of certain features on these social networking sites — but it is also important to remember that these sites only guarantee the level of privacy outlined in their privacy policy. If users choose to not opt-out, they don’t have much room for complaint. Read privacy polices of these sites to practice safe social networking.

Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee

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Whitney Waters

Whitney Waters graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in May 2012, and is a member of the Kentucky Bar. She has a B.S. in Agricultural Biotechnology and a B.S. in Journalism. Her areas of interest include intellectual property, foreign, environmental, and social policy. She is currently a Intellectual Property Masters of Law candidate at The George Washington University and Presidential Management Fellow.

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