Understanding the Legal Issues for Social Networking Sites and Their Users

Let's face it: Social media has become an integral part of our lives. Whether it's Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn, people are taking advantage of these online meeting spaces to make friends, communicate and expand business opportunities.

But what are the legal obligations that arise out of the use of social networks, both for the user and the sites themselves?

Laws Pertaining to Social Media Sites

When discussing the legal liabilities and obligations of social networking sites, some of the most important statutes to pay attention to are:

It's also important to keep laws about personal data in mind, such as the EU's General Data Protection Regulation and the California Data Privacy Act.

Section 512

Section 512(c) removes liability for copyright infringement from websites that allow users to post content, as long as the site has a mechanism in place whereby the copyright owner can request the removal of infringing content. The site must also not receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity.

This creates an interesting problem for most sites that allow users to post music, photos or video. For instance, numerous content owners have sued YouTube for copyright infringement. In one such case, media giant Viacom sued YouTube for $1 billion in damages for clips uploaded by YouTube users. YouTube was able to settle without paying any damages, primarily due to the safe harbor provided by Section 512(c). However, in the years that followed, YouTube began selling ad space that could amount to a financial benefit directly attributable to the sharing of copyrighted materials.

Section 230

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes websites from certain liability when they publish information provided by another source. This usually arises in the context of defamation, privacy, negligence, and other tort claims. It does not, however, cover criminal liability, copyright infringement, or other intellectual property claims.

Thus, if a user posts defamatory or otherwise illegal content, Section 230 shields the social network provider from certain liability arising out of the publication. Websites that, in whole or in part, create or develop contested information, on the other hand, are deemed "content providers" that do not benefit from the protections of Section 230.

However, the 9th Circuit's decision in Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, LLC called the section's broad coverage into question. A divided panel found that the website created or developed information on the site in two ways: First, by creating the questions that users answered when creating their profiles. Second, by channeling or filtering the profiles according to the answers to those questions.

The court's second justification was fairly controversial and goes against the widely established precedent granting a broad, robust privilege to interactive service providers. In essence, the panel's ruling holds that, by channeling information to users and providing search capabilities, Roommates.com has added an additional layer of information, "meta-information" you could say, that it is at least partly responsible for creating or developing.

Legal Considerations for Social Media Users

Social media users don't enjoy any of the immunities granted to social networking sites under the law, so they should be careful when posting messages or files to the sites.

The main areas where users can get themselves into trouble are through the posting of defamatory content and content that infringes on intellectual property rights.

Since no statutory immunities exist to shield users, the standard laws on defamation and infringement apply. If a user is found to have posted defamatory content, the user will be liable, even if the site can escape liability under Section 230. Similarly, if a user posts material that infringes on another's copyright, the user will face liability for the infringement, despite the site's potential safe harbor under Section 512.

The First Amendment and state constitutional free-speech provisions often come into play in these types of defamation suits. Several of the most prominent cases regarding user liability for material posted on social networking sites have dealt with students suffering criminal charges or adverse consequences at their schools as a result of allegedly defamatory, threatening or indecent messages posted on social networking sites.