Monday, 9 August 2010

Tag me if you dare

In July, the social networking website Facebook celebrated the milestone figure of 500 million users, meaning that one in 12 people in the world have a Facebook account. For many people, Facebook has become a part of their daily life and the website’s growing importance has raised legal issues.

Although Facebook often escapes liability thanks to its Terms of Use (posts should not be ‘threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing or abusive’), the website has become a fertile ground for legal claims. Users against users. Apart from the ongoing discussion about its Terms of Use and privacy settings, one case in particular deserves attention.  

The High Court of England and Wales awarded, on 27 July, £10,000 in libel damages to Raymond Bryce. Bryce took offence when a former friend posted an image of child sex abuse on Bryce’s Facebook page with the comment ‘Ray, you like kids’. Although the picture was removed within 24 hours, the image was ‘tagged’ (linked) to Bryce’s and 11 other profiles, allowing thousands of ‘friends’ to see the picture for hours after it had been posted.

Dr Ian Brown, from the Oxford Internet Institute, said: “This is worse in some ways than putting offensive posters on lamp posts because it’s going directly to your friends or colleagues. It is almost impossible not to see it”.

The case comes a year after the High Court awarded £22,000 to a businessman whose personal details were made public in a fake Facebook profile, created by a former friend. Although cases like these are still relatively rare - and it is not easy to build a libel case - the rulings emphasise that what is posted online has consequences. There is a very fine line between libeling someone and just poking fun at a friend or colleague, when innocent banter turns into libellous smear. Jeremy Clarke-Williams, Partner at Russell, Jones and Walker, said: “What a lot of people do not realise, users of Facebook and other social networking sites can be just as much subject to the laws of libel as other media outlets if the information, as in this case, is published online for third parties to view”.

However, even if someone has been subject to defamation, suing is not always the best option, according to Louise Fullwood, Legal Director at Pinsent Masons: “Going so far as to sue may be counterproductive in both drawing more attention to the comments made and often provoking ill-feeling and further actions”.

Published previously in the July issue of E-Commerce Law Reports, London 2010 - (c) 2010 CP Publishing