In the grand scheme of things, social media is still a neophyte, with vehicles such as Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare and blogs only recently becoming an integral thread in our social fabric. As a result, we’re only just beginning to understand their legal consequences.
Bradley S. Shear, a Bethesda, Md.-based attorney, has extensively researched these legal repercussions. As he says, “People think they can get away with anything online.” But as we’re starting to learn, they can’t.
To help you navigate this still-murky world, here are some social-media legal issues to be aware of.
Copyright & Trademark Infringement
In the print world, it’s a foregone conclusion that you should never violate copyright and trademark rules. Yet online, people do it often. As Shear says, “There’s massive copyright and trademark infringement going on left and right [on the web], some of which is intentional and some of which is questionable.”
A recent case in point: In March, The Washington Post was brought to court by the Washington Redskins because of the unauthorized use of the sports team’s name on the newspaper’s popular Redskins Insider blog. As a result, The Post had to change the name of the blog to Football Insider.
In the meetings industry, this issue typically manifests itself in the arena of copyrighted photography. “People might take other people’s photos and put them on a big banner [for their event],” Shear says. “What they don’t realize is they don’t generally have the right to do this without obtaining a license from the copyright holder.”
To avoid this, make sure to only use photography if you have been given express permission to do so, or if it’s allowable under a creative commons license. And as the Washington Redskins example illustrates, you should be careful when citing any trademarked names or entities in your event blogs or any branding materials.
A recent case starring none other than Courtney Love illustrates the very real consequences of defamation on the web. After the singer went on a Twitter tirade against a small business owner—the result of a clothing payment dispute—she was sued, and ultimately had to pony up $430,000 in a settlement.
The lesson—be careful when attacking someone online—should particularly be heeded by industry suppliers who try to use social media to undercut their competition. Just as in the print world, doing so could lead to legal penalties.
Misrepresentation & Full Disclosure
Another legal no-no is lying to or misleading people online. Shear points to the hypothetical example of an event organizer who hires a popular blogger to promote a conference. Under the FTC Advertising Regulations, Shear says that blogger would have to disclose his or her relationship with the organizer. Full disclosure is common in print—for example, People magazine always reveals that it is owned by Time Warner when it writes about the corporation or any of its subsidiaries—and should also be adhered to online.
This issue came to the forefront in March, when a company called Legacy Learning Systems Inc. hired affiliate marketers to write positive reviews of its services, without revealing the payments. In a ruling, the FTC called this “deceptive and illegal” and forced the company to pay $250,000 in fines.
A related phenomenon, which Shear says is on the rise, is people who follow a large group of people on Twitter in order to get followed back—then unfollow them en masse to bolster their followed-following ratio. This may enhance the perceived status of your brand or event, but Shear says this practice, known as Social Media Credential Fraud, could lead to legal action on the grounds of misrepresentation.
Over the years, there has been an increasing number of issues surrounding online security, and while not necessarily legal in nature, Shear still singles it out as an area of concern in the meetings industry.
For example, Shear says there could be issues if you use FourSquare, GoWalla or another geolocation service to announce the location of your business meeting, because people could use those details to steal proprietary information. This can even happen if you take precautions not to reveal where your event is. As he says, “If you say you’re holding a business meeting in Bentonville, Ark., there’s a good chance your meeting is for Wal-Mart [since the company is the only major corporation based there].” His advice? “If you want to use a location-based service, you need to be careful from a security standpoint.”
Employee & Employer Rights
To garner information on employees, employers have increasingly turned to the information-rich personal world of social-media sites. In particular, many corporate leaders have begun to demand Facebook usernames and passwords of applicants during the interviewing process. While the legal rules on this are still being hammered out, groups including the ACLU have come out against this practice on the grounds that it violates privacy rights. With the exception of some positions, such as those that require security clearances, Shear says he sees this potentially becoming a legal liability. As an employer, he says, “In general, it’s best to avoid it.”
At the same time, employees should shy away from posting negative opinions of their employers on social-media sites. Though an employee may have a First Amendment right to criticize his or her employer, Shear says, “Bad-mouthing your employer on a social-media site may get you fired.”
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the legal issues surrounding social media. If you’re in doubt, consult a lawyer. And as a general rule, you should stop telling yourself you can get away with anything online. As more and more cases are proving, that pretense could land you in hot water.