The Law and Rampant use of Facebook

Facebook is very popular. People use it, and other social networking sites, to keep in touch with family and friends, to post photographs and keep them informed. Users might think that their social network use is a purely personal matter. However, the Law can and does interest itself in Facebook, in many ways, apart from the restrictions in Facebook’s own legal terms and conditions.

You might think that your photographs and comments on social networking sites are personal. However, as soon as you push the enter button you are placing those items in the public domain, and it is this that gets many people into legal problems. You also might think that when you delete things they are gone, but anything that you publish on Facebook is there forever. You also have little control over how social networking sites use your data.

Facebook use has many legal consequences, for example, your activities on Facebook and other social networking sites can provide evidence to convict you of a crime, a civil offence, or provide evidence of your behaviour, and attitudes, these can affect your ability to use the law. Furthermore, law enforcement, secret services and other government agencies use social networking sites to further their objectives.

For example, one American case concerned a newspaper reporter using photographs found on Myspace, a social networking site, to illustrate a news story. The judge ruled this use a breach of copyright because people sharing photographs on social networking sites still retain their property rights over their photographs according to this site’s (and most others) terms and conditions. Yet this case throws up an anomaly, because you can still libel someone on Facebook and a court will hold you liable.

Your social network postings can show you as a liar, unfit parent, or a bad, or immoral character. Family lawyers dealing in divorce cases often trawl through social networking accounts looking for evidence of bad behaviour. Lawyers commonly look at Facebook and other social network accounts to find evidence of bad character, wrongdoing, admissions of fault or to rebut claims made by the opposing side. Judges use social networking sites to research litigants.

In February 2012, in a High Court case in the United Kingdom regarding a commercial matter, where the defendant was difficult to find, Mr Justice Teare ruled that the claim could be served on the elusive defendant via Facebook. Although this is just an extension of earlier English court rulings, that courts can serve injunctions using Twitter, court orders via Facebook, and summons via social networking sites, the ruling is legally significant because previous rulings were in lower courts. Under English Law, a High court ruling is binding on lower courts and persuasive on the High court. The High court ruling therefore confirms the validity of the previous lower court rulings. Courts in Australia, New Zealand, England, and Canada ruled that foreclosure (home repossession by mortgage company) notices can be served via social networking sites.

Social networking site use does not only have implications in civil law cases. It also has implications in criminal law cases. In 2011, Chester Crown Court jailed defendants in two separate cases* where Facebook messages formed the sole evidence of incitement to riot. Both cases were connected to general civil disorder in England in 2011. In one case, the defendant posted a message on Facebook, inviting others to meet him at a particular place for a smash down. In the event, neither the defendant nor anyone else attended except for police officers. Although no one, not even the defendant, acted upon the inciting message, the judge sentenced the defendant to four years in a young offenders’ institution. In the other case, the defendant used his Facebook account to design a web page, during the same civil disorder, as a drunken prank, entitled The Warrington Riots. No rioting ever broke out in Warrington. The defendant on rising the following morning, immediately removed the page and apologized on Facebook saying that he regretted his drunken action. The judge sentenced him to four years in prison for incitement to riot.

In an American drunk driving case, the defendant whilst awaiting the court case dressed as a prisoner for a Halloween party. At the time, his victim was in hospital still receiving treatment for injuries sustained during the incident. The Judge, on seeing the Facebook posting, jailed the defendant for two years.

Simply clicking like underneath a social networking post can cause you legal difficulties. In 2009, six unhappy employees in the sherriff’s office, in Hampton, Virginia, USA clicked like on the Facebook page of their boss’ political opponent during the electoral campaign. The incumbent sheriff won the election and promptly sacked the employees. They sued for unfair dismissal but could not get their jobs back.

Using Facebook, or any other social networking site, can bring you legal headaches. Think very carefully before you post anything at all on any social networking site. Never post anything at all when your thinking processes are not what they should be, for example, when you are not thinking clearly, because you are drunk or angry. Think about whether your post could possibly incite others to criminal activity. Posting a message can land you in jail, the drunken photograph, which you think will amuse your friends, could haunt you in years to come, liking someone else’s post can cause you trouble. Social network sites, such as Facebook, are great fun, but their rampant, indiscriminate use can bring you legal nightmares.

* R v Blackshaw & R v Sutcliffe-Kennan, Chester Crown Court, August 2011