Law and social media – dull but important

Last week I spent a day at a social media legal masterclass (details are here if you want them ) with an excellent presenter in Kathryn Corrick. I attended as I wanted to make sure I have a proper overview of what the legal issues are and to get a bit more detail where possible. I was fairly relieved to find that I do have a grasp of the essentials and that actually anyone with a fair amount of common sense and an idea of the basic principles is going to be fine but there were a few interesting points I wanted to note properly. However as it was a legal masterclass I need to point out that I am not a lawyer – and neither was the person running the course – so this is not actual advice!

But first a more general observation. there is a huge difference in the legal and moral positions on various issues and the law is not yet ready for social media.  Social media throws up issues of privacy and identity which are far more complex when you have a complete record of someone’s time online and also a need to balance the personal with the professional roles of an individual. This is particularly true for democratic content where it might be the legal case that copyright is broken for example but where the moral case is very clearly with anyone who is trying to constructively engage in democratic debate. The law is a tool which is there to help is all get along and in the case of social media we don’t really know how we want to get along and how we need the law to help is yet as we are still writing the rulebook.

But more specifically – here are the specific things I noted from the day – they are not all new thoughts – but useful reminders if nothing else:

  • Copyright really is very simple – if someone else created a piece of content then don’t use it without crediting them. If you want to use big chunks of someone else’s content then ask them – and if you want to try and profit it from it then don’t – they made it and they should profit. Democratic content is slightly different in that you want people to take it to some extent – but the problem of people taking selected pieces and quoting out of context can be addressed through copyright legislation. We are about to do some work around making council webcasts far more viral – and I will be looking at the creative commons licence model to see if this offers the right level of protection. Making the webcast player embeddable is a good route to deal with the copyright problem as if people embed content then they are far less likely to abscond with it – its about making the right thing to do the easiest route.
  • You really cannot represent yourself as someone else – this is not news but I did not know that this is all down to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Training  Regulations of 2008 (I say this in homage to Kathryn who ran the course – she claims this as her favourite bit of legislation. The regulation covers things like fake blogs but also using fake accounts to leave comments. This highlights the problem of identity / anonymity for officers in my view as you really do need to use your own identity. And did you know that the act of creating fake blogs is actually known as flogging??
  • Purdah – we had an interesting discussion of social media and purdah over lunch and Kathryn’s view – which I agree with – is that the substantive point which you need to focus on is whether or not you have gained benefit from your role as am elected representative and if you have then you need to disassociate from this during the election process. In a social media context this means that you cannot, for example, use the same twitter account that you use as an elected representative in order to campaign – even if you have set this up outside of the council infrastructure – because you are communicating with followers who you may have picked up as a member. This inevitably means having more than one account on social media sites and making sure that you communicate where you are going to be at any time as it were. Though this makes clear sense in terms of the ‘letter of the law’ it seems to me to ultimately be a very clumsy way of handling identity – but this is what we are stuck with until we have a more sophisticated view of online identity management.
  • Moderating content is actually higher risk than not moderating as once you moderate something you take responsibility for it. This is worth remembering in the context of the virtual town hall pilot.
  • We did talk about aggregation and Kathryn said she would follow this up as its clear that aggregation is something new which means there is nothing in the existing body of law to help us with liabilities and responsibilities. Also a point to note for Virtual Town Hall!
  • Privacy is largely ignored by most social media sites and it really is a shocker when you read the terms and conditions ( I know we all know that but really – how often do you actually stop and think about it!!). One thing to note is that most sites insist that it is actually a person who creates an account – which actually creates some problems where an individual is signing up on behalf of an organisation. Again – this is probably one of those lawyer problems which will never be an actual issue but needs to be noted.
  • While talking about privacy – I was surprised as to how easy it actually is to breech someone’s privacy (for example talking about a friends health in a public place). I think the thing to note here is that you need to be aware of what the other person would be happy with you revealing – not to judge other people’s level of disclosure by your own.

There are some common sense things you can do to navigate all of this – the two main ones being:

  • Have a strong take down policy and remove content quickly if there is an issue – but make sure that the policy tells people what you have done so you can’t be accused of censorship
  • Make it easy for people to complain – encourage people to take responsibility

So – no amazing revelations here as the law is really about clarity of thought and if you have that then you are fine.  Where this gets interesting is in what is best for the individual is no longer the best thing for democracy in general and where the technology starts to expand beyond what we can find a real world simulacrum and hence precedent for.  Will update this if we get info back on the aggregation point.

  1. Carl Haggerty

    March 29, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Good post Catherine,

    What i think is interesting though is that a lot of the above is really about People taking responsibility themselves. It does highlight the wider gap in society around understanding “Digital Footprint” and how this might impact your friends as well as yourself.

    Maybe something that Martha Lane Fox and the National Digital Participation Plan should be picking up as well within its wider strategy and framework.

  2. curiouscatherine

    March 29, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Hi Carl – I think you are spot on with linking this to ‘digital footprint’ – mainly because there is going to be such a huge attitude difference around privacy and all these issues when people are used to the idea that their lives online are completely auditable.

    Would love to see some proper thinking about the civil impacts of this are which is not just ID card hysteria.


  3. Kathryn Corrick

    March 30, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Catherine – thank you so much for writing this up, I’m chuffed to bits.

    Digital Footprints is something that Antony Mayfield has written about in his new book, Me and My Webshadow, which might be of interest. Whilst the book isn’t about the legal side of things per se, it does describe what a web footprint looks like and how to manage it, which I think for most people is the starting point.

    I will also get back to you on the aggregator query when I have news.

  4. Paul Johnston

    March 30, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Catherine – very interesting. Amusing that your trainer’s favourite piece of legislation is the” Consumer Protection from Unfair Training Regulations of 2008″ 🙂

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