Posted by Stephen Welfare, Partner
‘Thoughts on social media, confidentiality and privacy’
In the past five years, the growth of social media has been impossible to miss. From individual bloggers through to large well-known sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, social media has now become a large part of today’s society. With such growth in such a short period of time, any legal issues raised are bound to be thin on case law. However, like the internet beforehand, whilst there are risks to social media outlets, the benefits can be great if it is regulated sufficiently.
What is Social Media?
For those unaware of the term ‘social media’, it is any way in which information of any kind can be shared across the globe in short periods of time. Whilst industrial media (newspapers, television and film) is set in stone as soon as it is made and aired to the public, social media is a current, ever-changing and truly global phenomenon. Largely based on the internet, social media encompasses many forms; from social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, to information collaboration sites such as Wikipedia, and to literally thousands of blogs all across the internet, worldwide. Social media aims to get information out to as many people as quickly as possible.
However, herein lies the problem. With the advent of up-to-the-minute news outlets and forums for any person to speak their mind, the business world has viewed social media as a potential legal hazard.
Confidentiality is an important aspect of any business. Nowadays, there is a risk that confidential data could (inadvertently or otherwise) be posted online. However, what constitutes as public or private? On LinkedIn (a business social networking site), any user who can view an employee’s account could potentially see other clients or customers contacted from that LinkedIn account. The question is, ‘if the information is online, does this fall into the public domain?’ The answer is ‘yes’ and, as a guideline, it is suggested that ‘if you shouldn’t talk about it to somebody not involved in it, you shouldn’t post it online.’
Most of the risk affecting the business world though deals with the employer’s relation to its (potential) employees. On a CV, few people (if any) note their sexual or religious orientation. However, social networking sites can make it easy to find such matters, leading to possible problems of discrimination. In employment, unless the company outlines all practicable steps to avoid harassment, then in the case of an employer accusing another (regardless of whether it happened outside the workplace), then the company is liable. In recruitment, although it is easy to deny that candidate was overlooked because of their personal views, if the candidate was to find out the real reason, successful claims are very likely to be made.
Potential for good
Despite this, there is the prospect of social media becoming the next major development in the business world. In the 1990s, the internet was viewed with suspicion as a prospective deterrent from work and causing a drop in productivity. Today, however, millions of people are dependent upon the internet to do their jobs. With social media something similar could happen, from promoting the positive image of the business in a blog, to targeted advertising campaigns to interested consumers on social networking sites, or even to opening up business opportunities with new clients found through social media outlets.
For now, the big problem of confidentiality and privacy is most applicable to many companies. It should be made clear to all employees of the potential damage of posting on the internet particularly as it is a public forum rather than a private one.
(With thanks to our work experience guy Liam)