Social Media and the Law: Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, Oh My! - Priori

Social Media and the Law: Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, Oh My!

By Paige Zandri
| Technology & Privacy

Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is showing up.” These days, if your business isn’t showing up on social media, your chances of success could be shrinking.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram provide a wealth of new techniques in advertising, publicity, and self-promotion for companies. Their low cost, low barrier to entry and interactive nature make social media marketing tools especially alluring. Businesses across a wide variety of industries are jumping on the bandwagon.

As a business owner, educate yourself on how to navigate the legal framework of social media. For example, you should understand the implications of sharing your intellectual property, advertising, and the general rules of engagement. Information travels fast online, and leaves a permanent digital footprint. You’d be wise to understand the legal landscape at the outset.

Intellectual Property

Digital copyright law -- enforced via the Digital Millenium Copyright Act -- protects and controls the online use of creative works. Be it a song, video clip, photograph or piece of literature, the unauthorized use of someone else’s copyrighted content is unlawful.

It’s easy to accidentally infringe on the intellectual property rights of others. Simply crediting the artist or photographer may not suffice. Always check whether creative assets are copyrighted or are in the public domain before you use them.

And it’s just as easy for someone to steal your material. While copyrights are automatically granted to the creator, you have no enforceable legal recourse until you officially register with the U.S. Copyright Office. Merely putting a copyright symbol preserves your right to prosecute someone for abusing or reproducing your work without your consent, but until you register with the U.S. Copyright Office, you can't commence a legal action.

Protecting Minors

While using photos on social media makes your business seem more fun and engaging, it can lead to unexpected consequences, especially when it comes to including photographs of minors. Children’s personal information is regulated by and protected under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, and it’s important to be proactive by asking permission before you post photos of others online.

Advertising & Marketing

The Federal Trade Commission strictly regulates the content and display of advertisements: truth-in-advertising laws prohibit false claims and require businesses to substantiate their claims and provide disclosures. While the same principles apply for online marketing, laws differ slightly for digital advertisements and specific stringent rules regarding:

  • the placement of disclosures in proximity to an advertisement
  • the use of graphics or other methods that distract user attention from disclosures
  • the use of hyperlinks
  • the repetition of disclosures

Additionally, the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 has established a variety of laws surrounding the use of newsletters and unsolicited emails to promote your business. The act creates requirements as to:

  • routing and header information
  • email subject lines
  • disclosing company information
  • opt-out requests

Furthermore, websites like Yelp, Citysearch and OpenTable provide an online consumer guide for evaluating companies around the world and allow users to post public ratings and reviews of businesses. A number of companies have abused these websites, giving themselves rave reviews and removing negative comments in order to attract more consumers. The deceptive practice of writing false appraisals of businesses can result in severe penalties. For example, as part of a recent undercover operation cracking down on fake online reviews, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued nineteen companies various fines totaling over $350,000.

Terms and Conditions Apply

Different websites each have separate terms and conditions of use. Know the rights that you are forfeiting when using certain social media platforms. For instance, both Twitter and Facebook’s terms and conditions of use effectively give them the right to use and modify material that you post, and transfer or sub-license their rights over a user’s content over to another organization or company.

Be sure to read the fine print to know exactly which practices are permitted and which are banned. Users are fully responsible for the content they display online, and failure to comply with the policies of various social media platforms can cause your company from being banned from using these websites.

Lawyer Up

Social media provides the opportunity for greater brand awareness, but it can also lead to liability. Cyber law is constantly evolving and is full of grey areas; it can be difficult to keep up with recent verdicts and policies. Consult a lawyer throughPriori Legal to to avoid potential litigation, and defend your company in the event of a lawsuit.

This article is part of a three-part series. Stay tuned for upcoming posts about workplace policies governing employee use of social media, and the ethics behind social media.


Special Thanks to Ella Gibson for her research and editorial contributions to this article.

Photo Credit: via Wikimedia Commons

You may also be interested in...
Like what you’re reading?
Sign up to get updates.