Social Networking Sites and Legal Issues

Magnifying glass over the definition of a law
Laws governing social networks continue to evolve.

Social networking sites and legal issues are a continuously evolving area of the law. The Legal Technology Center details a wide variety of legal issues involving social networks, as millions of people connect and interact online.

About Social Networking Sites and Legal Issues

Basic laws governing social networks include protecting the legal liabilities of the site and the site users, particularly with regard to content that users can upload. The Legal Technology Center cites two federal statutes governing social networking sites and legal issues in 2009.

Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Websites that allow users to post their own content would be subject to copyright infringement if not for this section of the Copyright Act. Members of social networking sites can post personalized content and materials via their blogs, links and document uploads. The social networking sites are protected from any liability associated with featuring any copyrighted materials, provided they do not profit from it and if they provide their members with a mechanism for removing the content when and if they terminate their own accounts.

According to the Legal Technology Center, YouTube cites this section of the law to protect itself from copyright infringement lawsuits because the users post the content, not YouTube staff. If YouTube were to profit from an advertising program, this section would no longer provide the same level of legal protection.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Communications decency covers legal issues such as defamation and illegal content. Ideally, a content provider should not report false or defamatory news. But users of social networking sites can and often do post anything they want, including rumors and blatant lies. This section the communications decency act doesn't protect those users so much as it protects the social networking service itself from being served in a liability or defamation lawsuit. While the courts will ultimately decide whether social networks will be held liable, Internet law continues to grow with regard to privacy, copyright and commercial protections or liabilities. Several states enforce local legislation with regard to Internet issues, but these laws are applicable only in those states. Most social networking sites cross state and national borders, which makes writing and enforcing those laws very difficult.

Interpreting the Law

Users agree to standard terms of use when they create an account on a social networking site. According to the terms governing Facebook for example, users grant the site limited license to display their copyrighted materials. They also agree to a code of behavior on the site and in their interactions with other members. Failure to obey these terms may result in the user being banned and their account terminated.

Facebook's terms of use are similar to other sites including MySpace and LinkedIn. If the site suspects illegal behavior (sexual predators for example), they are under obligation to report those suspicions to the authorities. However, if a user is not violating terms of use, or a complaint is not filed by another user, the terms are more for legal coverage for the social networking site rather than for the independent user.

A good rule of thumb when it comes to posting on a social networking site and legal issues is that once something is posted in one place, there is no guarantee it will ever be removed from the growing body of Internet content. So if you don't want it online forever, don't post it.

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Social Networking Sites and Legal Issues