27 June 2012

The Law v Social Media


Amber Melville-Brown
Partner | US

On 20 June, I had the pleasure and privilege of opening the Young Norwood 2012 debate at the London Film Museum. The subject was 'The Law v Social Media and Others (2012)'. The event was attended by more than 170 young professionals, raised £30,000 for Norwood's vital services supporting adults with learning disabilities and children and families in need and Withers was proud to sponsor it. The impact of social media on our lives encouraged a thought provoking debate. Those on the panel at the, let's say, slightly more mature end of the spectrum had views quite different from the younger participants. Silver Fox Larry Lamb, British actor of many a year and recently gracing our TV screens in East Enders and Gavin and Stacey, was worried about the younger generation. He supported the motion that youngsters are exposing themselves far too readily on the Internet and thought that many felt under pressure to do so, simply to make themselves popular with ‘friends'.  At the other end of the age spectrum, Emma Barnett, journalist, broadcaster and commentator, evidenced a more pragmatic approach, saying that if she felt offended or harassed by on-line approaches, she found a friend in ‘delete'. Indeed, discussing how real life relationships can be under pressure from those in the virtual world, she told the audience how she had felt the need to 'de-friend' some of her real friends from Facebook, because if and when they did ultimately meet up, they already knew everything about what was going on in each other's lives.  Media specialist solicitor Charlotte Harris was also concerned about the impact that social networking could have on vulnerable children. But she used it for the good it seems during the debate, taking advantage of the encouragement to use electronic devices during the event and texting furiously during the debate, I'm told, to deal with a complex network of child care requirements at home (Sarah Jessica Parker, eat your heart out). Texting and tweeing on the job was something that media barrister David Sherborne is also accustomed to apparently, amusing the audience by relaying his delight at Lord Justice Leveson's decision to allow attendees to tweet during the enquiry. Not for reasons of free speech, however, but because he told us (presumably entirely fictionally) it allowed him to catch up with his friends during the dull bits. Social media can be an amazing force for good. We only have to look at the empowering effect it had during the Arab Spring. And what about the case of primary school girl Martha Payne? A news story of her being banned from photographing her school lunches – for a charity campaign which promised to generate £7,000 – went viral in no time. And, with hit upon hit on her website, she has now generated over £85,000 for hungry Malawian children. But social media can have its dark side too. And a carefree attitude towards our private lives now, may result in an inability for rehabilitation later in life. As I teased the events chair, renown broadcaster and journalist, Joshua Rozenberg. I gave a (fictitious, I think) account of young Mr Rozenberg in Freshers' week starting his law degree, back in the 1970s. I asked the audience to imagine Joshua Junior — after one cider too many and egged on by his new pals — throwing himself with wild abandon into the university spirit; and throwing off his flares and platforms to sprint through the quad wearing nothing but a recently purloined policeman's helmet. In the glory days of the 1970s, Joshua's antics might have been snapped on a Kodak instamatic. Today, they would have been captured on every mobile phone in the quad and texted, tagged and tweeted to thousands before you could say: ‘Law in Action'. There they would remain — unlike the frayed and faded instamatic pics — on online archives, forever. While the semi-clad student of the seventies could rehabilitate himself from his past mistakes, our current, socially plugged-in youngsters cannot. Should we legislate to protect us from ourselves, as was asked in the debate? I think not — that would be an unnecessary invasion into our lives and would risk chilling our own free speech. But we can be our own worse enemies so my advice to our clients, whether they use the social network sporadically for business purposes or daily to shadow their real daily lives, to Think before they Link; to Take Time out before they Tweet; to Face Facts before they Facebook; and to Beware before they Blog. The Internet that we have created is a powerful creature. Let's ensure that we stay in control, and not let it turn into a monster that controls us.

Amber Melville-Brown Partner | London

Category: Blog