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Social Media and Your Legal Responsibility

31 March 2014

Social Network Fingers

On February 4, 2014, Facebook turned 10 years old.

There are currently 1.23 billion monthly Facebook users - about ⅙ of the world’s population.  76% of Facebook users log-in once a day spending on average 20 minutes per visit.  It is estimated that nine million Australians use Facebook on a daily basis.

As of January 2014, there are 645,750,000 active Twitter users with 135,000 new users every day. They make 58 million tweets per day.

Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YoTube and user-generated content sites such as blogs and customer review sites have re-shaped the dissemination of information.  The majority of Australian businesses use social media to drive traffic to their website, increase brand awareness and to reach out to a target audience.  Likewise, consumers use social media to research things to buy, where to buy them and to review feedback about products and services.  Advertising and promotional media is a two-way street with customers commenting on products and sharing information.  

The Internet is inherently trans-border in nature and is unconstrained by the boundaries usually associated with other broadcast media such as radio and TV.  While some companies lament the loss of control of their message and branding through social media, for many it is recognised as a powerful tool in forming a company’s reputation.

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This shift has created many new legal challenges in defamation, privacy, intellectual property and consumer laws.  What do you need to know to protect your business and social media sites?

  • Material posted on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube carries the same responsibilities as traditional printed materials: you cannot make false, misleading or deceptive claims.

  • You cannot re-post another person’s misleading claims or defamatory material.

  • And, you have an obligation to ensure that others do not post misleading, false, deceptive or defamatory comments on your social media sites.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Council (ACCC) has issued guidelines for the use of social media which include:

  • Do not make false or misleading statements.  And do not allow others to make false or misleading statements.  You can be held responsible for posts or public comments made by others on your social media pages which are false or likely to mislead consumers.

  • Remove negative comments about competitors if misleading or deceptive.   While you can respond to negative comments, in most cases the safest policy is to remove offending content.

  • Monitor your social network sites regularly.  The amount of time you spend monitoring should be commensurate to the size of your company and the number of “fans”  or “followers” on your sites.

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In addition to monitoring your sites, consider adopting some basic company policies to deal with social media issues.  

1) Adopt “house rules” that apply to friends and followers when using your social media pages.  The rules should be featured on your social media pages and you should “block” users who breach these rules.   

2) Develop a brand strategy to deal with common trademark issues that relate to social media sites.  Determine which trademark matters need to be addressed (such as trademark infringement, trademark dilution and brand tarnishment) and determine matters that can be “let go”.  Register all relevant domain names and handles.

3) Consider the use of social media by your employees.  Employees may express opinions on Facebook that may directly or indirectly affect your company.  There are hundreds of examples of employees revealing confidential information and other trade secrets on networking sites as well as unwittingly providing information and comments that can be called upon as evidence in a litigation.  How far can a company go in directing employees comments? Any employee policy that seeks to restrict comments on social media must be balanced against the right to freedom of opinion and expression.  Be specific as to what is allowed and not allowed.

There is a tendency to be less formal with content and comments on social media.  However, a good rule is don’t make statements on Facebook that you wouldn’t make in other types of advertising or document.  As soon as you click that tweet button, your comments have been published and you may be liable to action in any State, Territory or even foreign country where the material can be published.

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This article is intended to outline some of the legal issues surrounding the use of social media.  It does not go into great depth with the subject matter, but offers useful insights into the basics.  It is not legal advice and it is not exhaustive of all laws and issues that may apply to your particular business.  There are many other laws and regulations that relate to social media.  Qualified legal counsel should review the details of your social media site(s) and compliance with Australian laws.  

 

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© 2014 Natasha Burns


Principal Lawyer | Burns IP & Commercial

T: 0439 035 974 | E: Natasha@BurnsIP.com | W: www.BurnsIP.com | 


Natasha Burns - Australia | LinkedIn

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