I am often contacted by potential clients that discover that ostensibly “private” information on social networks, particularly Facebook and Twitter, has become public, often to the potential client’s detriment. The content has often become public because a third-party, including other Facebook or Twitter users, or a third party blog, reposts the information, often in a negative light.
Content of concern to potential clients often includes an inappropriate photograph, or a now-regretful Facebook comment or Twitter post. I also routinely see concerns about direct messages on Twitter or wall-posts on Facebook. In most cases, the potential client asks what can be done to remove the offending content.
Unfortunately, there is usually little chance to remove such content because there is no legal basis on which to base demands for removal. Information that a user generates and publicly posts is generally not legally protected from further dissemination or commentary, except in very special cases where other legal principles such as copyright protection, false light or defamation may apply. If you have questions about your specific situation, contact a privacy attorney here at CyberLaw PC.
Potential clients are often frustrated to hear that opportunity for removal is limited and ask what can be done to prevent future scenarios. I generally offer three main tips to such potential clients:
First, you should always assume that ANY content you post or share on the Internet can become public. Whether it is e-mail, a photograph, a video or simple text, any document shared digitally, even amongst friends, can often find itself becoming viral, replicated thousands of times as it is shared via e-mail and other electronic means. Search for Karen Owen’s “List”, for one such example of an unintended viral consequence.
Second, I generally do not recommend that you issue any type of takedown notice unless you are confident that you have a colorable legal justification for doing so. Individuals that were willing to post the original content in a negative light are quite likely to post your takedown notice as well, compounding the problem. More importantly, there is little chance that the content will be removed as a result of the takedown notice.
Finally, I strongly recommend that EVERYONE that maintains any type of Internet presence register and develop the .com version of their full name. For example, if your name is John Smith, I would recommend that you register JohnSmith.com. If your name is similarly common to John Smith, you may want to use your profession, location or middle initial or name. For example, AttorneyJohnSmith.com or JohnSmithWashingtonDC.com, or JohnMSmith.com. Prominent individuals at start up companies or firms with strong figure heads may also want to do the same.
Once the name is registered, be sure to occasionally post newsworthy information about yourself using simple blogging software such as WordPress or Joomla. In most cases, you website will rise very quickly to the top of the search results when people search for you by name and will give you the opportunity to have the opportunity to share “your side of the story” as to any criticism you receive for uncontrolled content or other issues that may arise.
Many people, particularly professionals such as doctors, lawyers, accountants and journalists, will receive some type of negative online attention, warranted or not, at some point in their lives. While an unfortunate reality, taking steps to maintain control of your content and being prepared to proactively respond to criticism makes good sense in both a personal and business context.