Social Media Continues To Impact Litigation and Trial

The impact of social media  (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) continues to grow in legal matters including litigation and trial.  The court decisions cut across numerous areas from employment law and personal injury to privacy rights and defamation.  Social media use has involved all the key players in lawsuits inclding judges, jurors, consultants, attorneys, reporters, and witnesses.  Lawyers are using Facebook to screen jurors; jurors are using Facebook to post about the case they are sitting on; judges are checking Facebook to make sure jurors are not using it; jury consultants are following Twitter to give advice on trial strategy to attorneys during the trial; and reporters are giving first hand accounts of trials 140 characters at a time. Bottom line: Social media is everywhere and lawyers and litigants should pay attention.

In keeping up to date on the topic, here are some new resources and  articles on social media and litigation and trial:

Vianei Lopez Robinson published an article for Texas Lawyer featured on Law Technology News that covers some recent decisions involving Facebook and the discovery of public and non-public information.  The article also discusses some of the ethical implications for attorney's "friending" litigation opponents. 

Dan Schwartz's Connecticut employment law blog continues to cover social media for employers. He recently posted a new update for employers on the newest social network site, Google +. 

Corey Dennis, who previously submitted to this blog a great summary on the basics of Connecticut civil procedure, has just published a comprehensive law review article on social media and the various laws implicated by its use. Here is a link to his article for the Massachusetts Law Review. 

 Leita Walker and Joel Schroeder published a thorough review of social media "crashing into the courtroom" in an article posted by Law.com.  The article describes several recent cases, juror misconduct with social media, attorney use of social media in discovery and cases ranging from employment to trademark matters.

A year or two ago it used to be relatively easy to track social media and the impacts on lawsuits and litigation. There were very few cases, and I posted about most of them.   Now, there are new reports and articles,  cases, and legal issues involving social media almost daily.   Just today,  a Google search of social media and trial brings up articles about the Roger Clemens perjury trial and the Casey Anthony murder trial. 

The bottom line is social media is here to stay and has clearly "crashed into the courtroom."  Attorneys, and especially trial lawyers and litigators, have to become familiar with all the legal implications as social media just might crash into one your cases.   

Disturbing Rise in Internet Harassment and Cyber Bullying Part Of Growing Trend

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.

 

 

 

Wondering Where The Line Is On Internet Privacy - - Just Watch Facebook

My firm receives many calls from new or existing businesses with Internet privacy questions.  Many calls come from e-commerce businesses, start ups, or businesses that want to utilize information gathered from users accessing their Web sites. Some business owners have ideas or concepts that test the limit on use of user profiles, preferences, and content.  The question becomes, just what are the limits for user expectations on privacy?

Take Facebook for example.  Facebook has a reported 400 million users.  Facebook is constantly in the headlines over its privacy policies and security settings related to its user's profile information.  Whether it is a class action lawsuit in California  or the recent $10 million settlement for its Beacon program, you can count on Facebook to have dealt with any number of privacy issues in litigation.  

Recently, another lawsuit has been filed over Facebook's "opt out" setting concerning the instant personalization feature.  Wendy Davis on  Online Media Daily reported on the story.  This feature automatically shares user information with three outside companies, Microsoft Docs, Pandora, and Yelp.  The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island for violation of the Stored Communications Act (Download here).  By my count, Facebook has been sued at least 30 times in Federal court in recent years.

In the Internet privacy area, Facebook tests the outer limits of what is acceptable for privacy rights and user expectations.  When Facebook makes a change or tries something new, everyone pays attention.  As a result, Facebook's privacy policies get vetted by 400 million users, numerous industry and trade groups, leading technology blogs like TechCrunch, and even the federal government. 

If you want to know what crosses the line when it comes to privacy on the Internet,  just watch Facebook.   

Connecticut Defamation Law, The Internet, And Social Networking

In the Business Torts category of this blog, I recently covered the basic law in Connecticut concerning interference with business relationships.  Today's post concerns another business tort known as "defamation" and how it intersects with the growing use of social networking sites.

There already have been several lawsuits for defamation arising out of use of social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook. For example,  The California Defamation Blog lists several celebrities involved in defamation cases, including Courtney Love who was sued by a fashion designer for defamation after a series of derogatory Twitter posts by Love.  Craig Kanalley of Chicagonow.com reported that a property owner sued a tenant for disparaging Twitter comments. The Chicago Tribune recently reported on a defamation lawsuit brought by a mother and her son after a phony Facebook profile was created showing the son was a racist.   

Should Connecticut businesses be concerned?  Clearly, the type and variety of these suits are on the rise. In legal circles, these type of claims have a category of their own called "cyber slander" or "internet defamation."  Given the popularity in use of social networking sites, and the ease in which statements can be broadcast to millions, it is safe to  predict that more defamation cases will be filed in the future. 

Connecticut businesses can be affected by defamation suits involving social networking sites and the internet in a number of ways, such as:

  • Employees making comments about a competitor
  • Employees making comments about supervisors or co-employees
  • Employees making comments about the company's products
  • Competitors making derogatory comments about the company
  • Phony Facebook or Twitter profiles
  • Derogatory comments about the company 

In Connecticut, defamation encompasses defamation by spoken (slander) and written (libel) words. In general, to raise a proper claim for basic defamation, a plaintiff must show that:

  1. A defamatory statement was made
  2. The statement identified the plaintiff to a third person
  3. The statement was published to a third person
  4. The plaintiff's reputation suffered injury as a result of the defamatory statement

In regards to businesses, there is also a defamation claim sometimes referred to as "commercial disparagement" or "trade libel."  For this type of claim, a plaintiff must prove disparagement of a business' goods or services by falsehoods published or communicated to a third person.

With the ease of publication to millions over the internet, it is easy to see how someone might publish a defamatory comment whether it be on a blog, social networking site, or website.   Chances are, if you are in business, either you, someone who works for you, or a competitor has commented about the business in cyberspace.

For a business, the best way to avoid a lawsuit for defamation as a result of employee use of sites such as Twitter and Facebook is to have a written policy that governs employee use.  The details of each policy will differ depending on your business, but clearly the policy should prohibit any defamatory or derogatory comments about the business, employees, or competitors.

In situations where a competitor or customer disparaged your business' products or services, a business may want to consider legal action and determine if grounds exist to issue a cease and desist letter, a take down letter, or initiate a lawsuit.  Internet defamation can ruin a business' reputation overnight and should be addressed immediately regardless of whether the business pursues legal action.   

For a business, whether legal action is taken may depend on the severity of the disparagement and the damage done.  In some cases, a cease and desist or retraction is a practical solution especially when a defamation suit would bring added attention to the matter.  In other cases, legal action, such as a defamation lawsuit, may be required to stop ongoing damage or serious problems.

Regardless of the situation, Connecticut businesses should, at a minimum, monitor cyberspace for defamatory comments.  Comments that might lead to a lawsuit could come from your own employees, a competitor, or a disgruntled customer.  A written policy is a good way to minimize risks of employee comments.  As for competitors and customers, Google alerts is a good way to monitor use of a business' name on the Internet. The alert will send you an email every time your business name is found on the internet. 

Three Lawsuits Against Facebook For Fraud Raise Concerns For Advertisers

If your business is advertising on Facebook, or considering it, you should do some research on the newest allegations of advertising fraud against the online giant.  Facebook reportedly has over 250 million users so it is understandable that a business would want access to Facebook's users.  Facebook offers businesses advertising space online that is targeted to specific demographics of its users.  Facebook charges for the advertising based on the number of views or clicks that the ad receives from users.

As reported by TechCrunch's Michael Arrington, massive complaints started surfacing recently against Facebook for "click fraud."  Basically, advertisers were clicking on competitor's ads, or paying others to do it, to artificially drive the price up.  Advertisers were also reporting that Facebook was charging for more clicks than the ad was actually receiving. There are now three lawsuits filed against Facebook for advertising click fraud.

 The most recent lawsuit was filed on July 31st by an individual advertiser seeking class action status.   The second lawsuit was filed by Unified ECM, a software company, seeking class action status for massive click fraud by Facebook.  The first click fraud lawsuit was filed by sports company RootZoo and it also seeks class action status. 

BNET Media's Catharine Taylor posted a good report on the details of the first two lawsuits including email comments from Facebook.  In the email, Facebook maintained that the Unified lawsuit is "unnecessary and baseless."  Wendy Davis of Online Media Daly posted a good report on the fist lawsuit by RootZoo. All three suits alleged discrepancies between the charges by Facebook and the actual number of clicks recorded by the advertisers.

Although Facebook has denied all the fraud allegations, TechCrunch takes the position that the click fraud problem is real and confirmed by Facebook. The Lost Press Marketing Blog presents a different view accusing Unified ECM of a "marketing stunt" to get exposure through press coverage of its lawsuit. 

Any business considering advertising with a pay per click campaign, should take caution whether on Facebook, another website, or a search engine.  If you want to measure your return on investment, you should consider monitoring any pay per click campaign internally.   If you are considering Facebook, you should wait to see what Facebook does to reassure its advertisers that fraud will be monitored effectively.  For now, the problem does not appear to be going away.

 

Social Networking Lawsuits Are Big Risk to Business

I just read an excellent article posted on Law.com from the New York Law Journal on social networking and challenges to business owners and their legal counsel.  The authors Christopher Boehning and Daniel Toal focus on a new emerging problems associated with electronic discovery of social networking data.  The authors also point out many of the potential problems for employers and businesses related to social networking sites.

When Facebook started exploding in popularity, you could see that the future in communication was social networking.  Boehning and Toal cite to a New York Times articles that indicates the future is now upon us as more people spend time on social networking sites than e-mailing.  The authors correctly point out something I emphasize to all my business clients:  businesses need to have a policy on how to handle social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter.  The policy should cover the business' use of such sites and use by employees.  Policies on preservation of the data should also be included as social networking data is akin to the new email.

Lawsuits involving some aspect of social networking sites are increasing in frequency from across the country. Take for example the recent jury verdict in New Jersey against Hillstone Restaurant for violation of the Federal Stored Communications Act. 

In that case, the employers accessed an employee MySpace group that was dedicated to criticizing the employer.  Although the verdict amount was relatively small, the implications are far reaching.  This case was reported on by Charles Toutant in the New Jersey Law Journal.  The employees' trial brief is a good read and spells out some of the arguments in favor of employees' rights to privacy with social networking sites. 

The outcome in the New Jersey case may have been different if the restaurant had a policy addressing use and access to social networking sites.  Businesses will have different concerns when it comes to adopting a policy, and no policy will cover every situation.  However, the lack of any policy at all is likely to lead to problems and potential litigation.  The best way to avoid litigation is to implement a written policy on use and access to social networking sites.