Legal Issues Associated with Emerging Social Interaction Technologies

Legal Issues Associated with Emerging Social Interaction Technologies

Robert D. Sprague (University of Wyoming, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-368-5.ch031
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This chapter focuses on legal issues that may arise from the increasing use of social interaction technologies; prospective employers searching the Internet to discover information from candidates’ blogs, personal web pages, or social networking profiles; employees being fired because of blog comments; a still-evolving federal law granting online service providers sweeping immunity from liability for userpublished content; and attempts to apply the federal computer crime law to conduct on social networking sites. The U.S. legal system has been slow to adapt to the rapid proliferation of social interaction technologies. This paradox of rapid technological change and slow legal development can sometimes cause unfairness and uncertainty. Until the U.S. legal system begins to adapt to the growing use of these technologies, there will be no change.
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The promise of the Internet as an information sharing platform (Leiner et al., 2003) has been fulfilled to a large extent in the twenty-first century by the emergence of Weblogs or blogs and social networking sites. Blogs, which originated as online diaries in which authors published information of interest for themselves and their few readers, usually in reverse chronological order, now number over 70 million (Sifry, 2007), covering just about every conceivable topic. Blogs are interactive because they link to other content on the Internet and many have the capability for readers to post their own comments, creating the possibility for ongoing dialog.

Social networking sites allow individuals to create online profiles (also referred to as pages) providing information about themselves and their interests, create lists of users (often referred to as friends) with whom they wish to share information, and to view information published within the network by their friends (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). The two most popular social networking sites, Facebook and MySpace, together boast nearly 100 million users (Stone, 2007).

As blogs and the use of social networking sites have proliferated, so too have potential legal problems. Prospective employers are reviewing job applicants’ social networking profiles to glean information not contained in résumés. Employees have been fired as a result of their personal blogs. Online services, including social networking sites, have been sued based on content provided by users. Criminal conduct has been partially extended to violating the terms of service required to join interactive sites. These situations present challenges to a legal system which historically has been slow to adapt to new technologies. As a result, many of these legal issues remain unsettled.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Networking Site: Internet-based service which allows individuals to create online profiles and share information with other users. Popular examples include Facebook and MySpace.

Negligence: An act which a reasonable person would recognize as involving risk of harm to another (Restatement, 1965, § 291). Negligence is a tort (a civil wrong) for which the victim may bring a lawsuit against the negligent party to recover damages suffered as a result of the negligent conduct.

Tortious Conduct: Causing harm to an innocent third party. The victim of tortious conduct seeks money damages through a private (civil) lawsuit brought against the tortfeasor.

Defamation: A published false statement harmful to the interests of another (Restatement, 1977, § 623A). Defamation is a tort (a civil wrong) for which the victim may bring a lawsuit against the defamer to recover damages suffered as a result of the defamatory comments.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: Outrageous or extreme conduct which results in severe emotional distress. It does not apply to mere insults, indignities, threats, or annoyances (Restatement, 1965, § 46). However, as discussed in this chapter, tormenting or harassing an individual to the extent she commits suicide would constitute the requisite level of emotional distress.

Negligent Hiring Doctrine: Legal doctrine holding an employer liable for harm caused to third parties by an employee, assuming the employer would not have placed the employee in a situation in which the third party was harmed had the employer, prior to hiring the employee, adequately investigated the employee’s background.

Employment-at-Will Doctrine: Legal doctrine applied to employment relationships of indeterminate length, allowing either the employer or employee to terminate the relationship at any time, with or without cause.

Interactive Computer Service: A term defined by the Communications Decency Act, meaning any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.

Blog: A personal diary published on the Internet, with entries appearing in reverse chronological order.

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