The tragic suicide of Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi, shows the potential devastating impacts arising from misuse of the Internet and social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. This incident also serves as a reminder of the rapid sea change that technology brings and how our laws struggle to keep pace especially when it comes to new forms of media and the Internet. I have seen two trends develop as it relates to lawsuits and social networking litigation. Both of these trends will continue.
The first trend concerns the potential problems and risks to business owners over social media. These issue have been well documented for over a year now. Some of these issues include privacy rights, defamation, trade secrets, non-competition agreements, electronic monitoring, evidentiary use, and concerns over social media policies in the workplace.
The second trend that has developed is the unfortunate increase and rise in cyber bullying, harassment, and invasion of privacy from users posting content on Blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube. The sad fact is that this often involves school age children as victims of cyber attacks or as users who do not fully understand the significance and devastation that might result from posting content online to the entire world.
As another glaring example, Anderson Cooper of CNN reported just last night on the disturbing story of Chris Armstrong, an openly gay student at the University of Michigan. The story detailed how a Michigan Assistant Attorney General, Andrew Shrivell, was outright harassing and stalking Mr. Armstrong both in person and on a blog. Mr. Shrivell’s conduct was revolting and disturbing for anyone let alone a law enforcement official. His actions are an example of someone running wild on the Internet with harassment.
Individuals facing harassment or bullying over the Internet often feel as if there is nothing that can be done to stop the conduct. For example, as of last night, the Michigan Attorney General had done nothing to discipline Shrivell for his conduct based on purported concerns for "First Amendment" rights. Although the available laws for bringing a lawsuit for improper use of the Internet continue to evolve, an attorney can help a victim of Internet or online harassment. In short, something can be done. Some of the legal theories available for a civil lawsuit include defamation, negligent misrepresentation, invasion of privacy, stalking statutes, and infliction of emotional distress.
The explosive growth of use of social media is not going to end. Instead, these trends will continue to dominate and grow. As use and misuse of social media and the Internet continues, litigation attorneys would be well served to stay on top of the evolving legal issues. Businesses and individuals will continue to need legal representation to address these growing trends.