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Social Media and its Legal Implications

Social Media and its Legal Implications
The benefits of the Internet and Social Media are unquestionable. But do the advantages of our electronic world impose any legal risks?

Published: 6 Jan, 2011

Today's Online World

Whether we want to accept it or not, the nature of communication and the interaction between people in societies are both drastically evolving.

We are moving towards a world where everything is connected through the Internet, specifically via Social Media; a replication of society in electronic form.

The traditional methods of communication are slowly vanishing along with the traditional conceptions of privacy.

The benefits that the recent phenomenon of Social Media brings are inconceivable - for both personal usage and business purposes.

However, the advantages do not come without implications; they come at a troublesome risk, yet one that can be avoided.

The Advantages of Social Media

The idea of file sharing ten years ago uncovered the power and impact of the Internet.

It imposed serious challenges for the legal system, which experienced significant difficulty in responding and simultaneously evolving with the rapid development of the Internet.

This scenario is being repeated today with Social Media on a much larger scale and likely with much greater ramifications.

Social networking sites, like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, to name a few, have evolved faster than anyone could have fathomed. Such networking sites have become the mainstay of communication for millions worldwide.

Their accessibility and convenience makes communication easier and more appealing to all generations.

The ability to create profiles and share pictures, experiences, information and comments provides users with a sense of belonging and ultimately connects everyone in a multitude of ways.

Social networking websites not only attract individuals but have also become a powerful tool for generating sales and building businesses.

Sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn have proven to be particularly useful for businesses of all types: they are being used as marketing or recruiting tools, as facilitations to the sharing of information or simply for basic connection purposes. Unfortunately, the negative ramifications of social networks are more disquieting than desired.

The Implications of being Social

Eroding Privacy

Arguably, some of the most significant implications include the erosion of privacy, liability in defamation and intellectual property (IP) rights infringement.

In regards to the effect of social networks on privacy, it is particularly the younger generation whose privacy is being encroached on.

Their use of such sites as a means to connect to friends, to share their experiences, to experience a sense of belonging, to feel good about themselves or to feel important and popular has reached an extent whereby there is little left of their privacy.



Have a look around your Facebook account and try and export your friends list - you can't.

More worrying, is the access parents, teachers, predators and even undercover police have to their profiles and information, whether with or without their consent - a misconception that their online community is a safe and private.

Such social networking sites are radically changing the traditional notions of privacy and as a result, privacy laws must also readjust to the changing nature of community interaction - they ought to be as fluid and ever-changing as the social media.


More worrying for businesses is the second mentioned implication: liability in defamation.

The definition of defamation varies across Australia, by and large, it includes material which has the tendency to lower the person in the view of others; to result in the person being avoided or shunned; or to expose the person to hatred, contempt or ridicule.

A successful action in defamation requires that the communication be published to a third person, that it identifies the plaintiff and that it holds a defamatory statement or imputation.

Although, as mentioned above sites such as Facebook and Twitter can build a business' profile and marketing, it also has the potential to disparage it.

A business may find itself facing legal liability for publishing defamatory material on their social network profile, by either one of its employees or by other online users. Defamatory material includes photographs, messages, videos, words, drawings and cartoons.

Although numerous defences exist, a successful action against a company has damaging consequences, for its reputation, credibility and financial viability. How you react is such situations is telling.

IP Rights

Pertaining to the third implication, as online social networking arenas enable the posting of a wide range of material; this imposes significant risks to businesses who may find themselves legally liable for hosting material which infringes on another’s IP rights.

The internet has made it much easier for material to be distributed and shared and thus, copyright infringement has consequently become much more prolific.

A Balance?

Notwithstanding the aforementioned risks, the benefits that social media and social networking websites provide are unquestionable for both personal usage and business purposes.

However, it is also undeniable that businesses, in particular, must always ensure the careful monitoring of their corporate profile and presence in the social network.

The lack of understanding of the implications for users of social media is a leading reason for which many businesses are refraining from embracing the new phenomenon. This is an unfortunate result in light of the numerous advantages.

Thus, a solid understanding of social media and the strict compliance with privacy, intellectual property and defamation laws are essential to a successful experience in this new networked world we live in.