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Socially Aware Blog The Law and Business of Social Media

Socially Aware Looks Back: The Social Media Law Year in Review

Posted in Employment Law, Litigation, Privacy

2012 was a momentous year for social media law. We’ve combed through the court decisions, the legislative initiatives, the regulatory actions and the corporate trends to identify what we believe to be the ten most significant social media law developments of the past year–here they are, in no particular order:

Bland v. Roberts – A Facebook “like” is not constitutionally protected speech

Former employees of the Hampton Sheriff’s Office in Virginia who were fired by Sheriff B.J. Roberts, sued claiming they were fired for having supported an opposing candidate in a local election. Two of the plaintiffs had “liked” the opposing candidate’s Facebook page, which they claimed was an act of constitutionally protected speech. A federal district court in Virginia, however, ruled that a Facebook “like” “…is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection”; according to the court, “liking” involves no actual statement, and constitutionally protected speech could not be inferred from “one click of a button.”

This case explored the increasingly-important intersection of free speech and social media, with the court finding that a “like” was insufficient to warrant constitutional protection. The decision has provoked much criticism, and it will be interesting to see whether other courts will follow the Bland court’s lead or take a different approach.

New York v. Harris – Twitter required to turn over user’s information and tweets

In early 2012, the New York City District Attorney’s Office subpoenaed Twitter to produce information and tweets related to the account of Malcolm Harris, an Occupy Wall Street protester who was arrested while protesting on the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris first sought to quash the subpoena, but the court denied the motion, finding that Harris had no proprietary interest in the tweets and therefore did not have standing to quash the subpoena. Twitter then filed a motion to quash, but the court also denied its motion, finding that Harris had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his tweets, and that, for the majority of the information sought, no search warrant was required.

This case set an important precedent for production of information related to social media accounts in criminal suits. Under the Harris court’s ruling, in certain circumstances, a criminal defendant has no ability to challenge a subpoena that seeks certain social media account information and posts.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued its third guidance document on workplace social media policies

The NLRB issued guidance regarding its interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and its application to employer social media policies. In its guidance document, the NLRB stated that certain types of provisions should not be included in social media policies, including: prohibitions on disclosure of confidential information where there are no carve-outs for discussion of an employer’s labor policies and its treatment of employees; prohibitions on disclosures of an individual’s personal information via social media where such prohibitions could be construed as limiting an employee’s ability to discuss wages and working conditions; discouragements of “friending” and sending unsolicited messages to one’s co-workers; and prohibitions on comments regarding pending legal matters to the degree such prohibitions might restrict employees from discussing potential claims against their employer.

The NLRB’s third guidance document illustrates the growing importance of social media policies in the workplace. With social media becoming an ever-increasing means of expression, employers must take care to craft social media policies that do not hinder their employees’ rights. If your company has not updated its social media policy in the past year, it is likely to be outdated.

Fteja v. Facebook, Inc. and Twitter, Inc. v. Skootle Corp. – Courts ruled that the forum selection clauses in Facebook’s and Twitter’s terms of service are enforceable

In the Fteja case, a New York federal court held that a forum selection clause contained in Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (its “Terms”) was enforceable. Facebook sought to transfer a suit filed against it from a New York federal court to one in Northern California, citing the forum selection clause in the Terms. The court found that the plaintiff’s clicking of the “I accept” button when registering for Facebook constituted his assent to the Terms even though he may not have actually reviewed the Terms, which were made available via hyperlink during registration.

In the Skootle case, Twitter brought suit in the Northern District of California against various defendants for their spamming activities on Twitter’s service. One defendant, Garland Harris, who was a resident of Florida, brought a motion to dismiss, claiming lack of personal jurisdiction and improper venue. The court denied Harris’s motion, finding that the forum selection clause in Twitter’s terms of service applied. The court, however, specifically noted that it was not finding that forum selection clauses in “clickwrap” agreements are generally enforceable, but rather “only that on the allegations in this case, it is not unreasonable to enforce the clause here.”

Fteja and Skootle highlight that potentially burdensome provisions in online agreements may be enforceable even as to consumers; in both cases, a consumer seeking to pursue or defend a claim against a social media platform provider was required to do so in the provider’s forum. Both consumers and businesses need to be mindful of what they are agreeing to when signing up for online services.

Six states passed legislation regarding employers’ access to employee/applicant social media accounts

California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey enacted legislation that prohibits an employer from requesting or requiring an employee or applicant to disclose a user name or password for his or her personal social media account.

Such legislation will likely become more prevalent in 2013; Texas has a similar proposed bill, and California has a proposed bill that would expand its current protections for private employees to also include public employees.

Facebook goes public

Facebook raised over $16 billion in its initial public offering, which was one of the most highly anticipated IPOs in recent history and the largest tech IPO in U.S. history. Facebook’s peak share price during the first day of trading hit $45 per share, but with a rocky first few months fell to approximately $18—sparking shareholder lawsuits. By the end of 2012, however, Facebook had rebounded to over $26 per share.

Facebook’s IPO was not only a big event for Facebook and its investors, but also for other social media services and technology startups generally. Many viewed, and continue to view, Facebook’s success or failure as a bellwether for the viability of social media and technology startup valuations.

Employer-employee litigation over ownership of social media accounts

2012 saw the settlement of one case, and continued litigation in two other cases, all involving the ownership of business-related social media accounts maintained by current or former employees.

In the settled case of PhoneDog LLC v. Noah Kravitz, employer sued employee after the employee left the company but retained a Twitter account (and its 17,000 followers) that he had maintained while working for the employer. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but news reports indicated that the settlement allowed the employee to keep the account and its followers.

In two other pending cases, Eagle v. Edcomm and Maremont v. Susan Fredman Design Group LTD, social media accounts originally created by employees were later altered or used by the employer without the employees’ consent.

These cases are reminders that, with the growing prevalence of business-related social media, employers need to create clear policies regarding the treatment of work-related social media accounts.

California’s Attorney General went after companies whose mobile apps allegedly did not have adequate privacy policies

Starting in late October 2012, California’s Attorney General gave notice to developers of approximately 100 mobile apps that they were in violation of California’s Online Privacy Protection Act (OPPA), a law that, among other things, requires developers of mobile apps that collect personally identifiable information to “conspicuously post” a privacy policy. Then, in December 2012, California’s Attorney General filed its first suit under OPPA against Delta, for failing to have a privacy policy that specifically mentioned one of its mobile apps and for failing to have a privacy policy that was sufficiently accessible to consumers of that app.

Privacy policies for mobile applications continue to become more important as the use of apps becomes more widespread. California’s OPPA has led the charge, but other states and the federal government may follow. In September, for instance, Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced The Mobile Device Privacy Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, which in some ways would have similar notice requirements as California’s OPPA.

Changes to Instagram’s online terms of service and privacy policy created user backlash

In mid-December 2012, Instagram released an updated version of its online terms of service and privacy policy (collectively, “Terms”). The updated Terms would have allowed Instagram to use a user’s likeness and photographs in advertisements without compensation. There was a strong backlash from users over the updated Terms, which ultimately led to Instagram apologizing to its users for the advertisement-related changes, and reverting to its previous language regarding advertisements.

Instagram’s changes to its Terms, and subsequent reversal, are reminders of how monetizing social media services is often a difficult balancing act. Although social media services need to figure out how they can be profitable, they also need to pay attention to their users’ concerns.

The defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)

Two bills, SOPA and PIPA—which were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, respectively, in late 2011—would have given additional tools to the U.S. Attorney General and intellectual property rights holders to combat online intellectual property infringement. A strong outcry, however, arose against the bills from various Internet, technology and social media companies. The opponents of the bills, who claimed the proposed legislation threatened free speech and innovation, engaged in various protests that included “blacking out” websites for a day.  These protests ultimately resulted in the defeat of these bills in January 2012.

The opposition to and subsequent defeat of SOPA and PIPA demonstrated the power of Internet and social media services to shape the national debate and sway lawmakers. With prominent social media services such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr opposed to the bills, significant public and, ultimately, congressional opposition followed.  Now that we’ve witnessed the power that these services wield when acting in unison, it will be interesting to see what issues unite them in the future.