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Judge Rules Nothing Is Private On Social Networks

by Sean P. Aune | September 30, 2010September 30, 2010 4:00 pm PDT

It would appear that no matter how tightly you lock down your privacy settings on social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, if you get involved with a lawsuit, you could see those doors burst wide open if a judge deems it necessary.

According to Forbes, Kathleen Romano filed a lawsuit against Steelcase Inc., a chair company, because she fell out of one of their chairs while working at Stony Brook University. She claims to have sustained “serious, permanent personal injuries” from the fall, and has needed multiple surgeries since the accident, as well as being bed ridden at home since the event.

Facebook LogoDuring the lawsuit, Steelcase’s lawyers asked for access to all of her information on Facebook as her profile image showed her standing in front of her home, smiling. They also claim to have knowledge that she went on a trip to Florida, and that the information in her Facebook account might prove that she has not been as nearly incapacitated as she claims. Facebook fought the subpoena stating that turning over the information would be a violation of federal law.

Judge Jeffrey Arlen Spinner disagrees. Writing in his ruling on the case, Justice Spinner said:

Both Facebook and MySpace are social networking sites where people can share information about their personal lives, including posting photographs and sharing information about what they are doing or thinking. Indeed, Facebook policy states that ‘it helps you share information with your friends and people around you,’ and that ‘Facebook is about sharing information with others.

To permit a party claiming very substantial damages for loss of enjoyment of life to hide behind self-set privacy controls on a website, the primary purpose of which is to enable people to share information about how they lead their social lives, risks depriving the opposite party of access to material that may be relevant to ensuring a fair trial.

[W]hen Plaintiff created her Facebook and MySpace accounts, she consented to the fact that her personal information would be shared with others, notwithstanding her privacy settings. Indeed, that is the very nature and purpose of these social networking sites else they would cease to exist. Since Plaintiff knew that her information may become publicly available, she cannot now claim that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Judge Spinner cited the 1986 electronic communications law to prove his point, but this very same law was used in a California case where a Judge ruled that anything marked as private was indeed such, and would fall under private communication.

To say this thing is a mess would be an understatement.  While I am certainly not a lawyer, I would think that the expectation of privacy for items that you are marked as such would win out the day, but apparently in the eyes of at least one judge there is no such thing as “privacy” on the Internet.  Again, it appears as if you should ask yourself some very serious questions about anything you feel like posting to the Internet, because even the most innocent of snapshots could end up being used as evidence in a lawsuit.

What say you?  Should we just post absolutely nothing to our social networking profiles?


Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...

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