31 March 2017

Surf's up online - but is it safe?


Amber Melville-Brown

Partner | UK

Once there was a time when our mistakes lasted as long as our memories. But today, the internet has become a dominant media channel, and it has a very long (and public) memory. Protecting your privacy and reputation is now more than ever, a complex business.

We live in a world of information-overload, fake news, memes, trolls and online hate campaigns. We comment on news immediately as it unfolds, via YouTube or Twitter, without fully digesting, or waiting for the mediation of a specialist reporter to offer up an interpretation or a considered opinion. By contrast, we are all now journalists to some degree, whether we comment on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or any other platform that takes our fancy.

This modern, immediate media world can be terrifying for individuals who, rightly or wrongly, find they are part of the story of the day. And a story that will unfold quickly, picking up speed as it does so, often under the scrutiny and judgement of a global audience.

On the bright side, the internet and social media have democratised the availability of knowledge, and have brought education, information and entertainment into our living rooms. We live in an era of incredible technological progress – good for us! But if our children don’t learn how to keep pace they’ll be left behind, professionally and socially, or caught out.

What we want for them is to gain all the benefits of the web, riding the wave and learning the skills that they need to succeed; but not – to continue the surfing metaphor – to be wiped out by a virtual rogue wave.

You need to know how to be safe and how successfully to navigate the digital landscape. The benefits can be enormous, from internet and app start-ups to unthinkable marketing opportunities. But you must always be mindful of the risks and understand the steps you can take to reduce them or mitigate any harm caused.

Reputation

To quote Benjamin Franklin, ‘glass, china and reputation are easily cracked and never well mended.’ That’s particularly true today, where the internet acts as a bottomless information store, keeping perhaps once forgotten information like pebbles in a jar, ready to be thrown at the windscreen of your reputation when you least expect it.

Defamatory statements that cause ‘substantial harm’ to a subject’s reputation, can be made in a single, misjudged click. If you’ve been targeted or even perhaps accidently libelled someone else (mistake is no defence), a website can be required urgently to take down the objectionable content, as the illegal use of its services will likely be contrary to its Ts & Cs. No success there? A reasoned but firm lawyer’s letter is a good alternative. Where a poster is anonymous, a court order (Norwich Pharmacal order) can be applied for, compelling the website to provide such information that they have, to identify the culprit.

And don’t forget, your reputation may also be at risk… from yourself. The internet is littered with stories of employees being fired for unprofessional tweets, or YouTubers getting in trouble for reckless stunts. If you’re thinking of sharing any information online, pause first to consider the consequences before hitting ‘post’.

Privacy

Privacy is a basic but vital civil right in a busy world of many people. Protected by Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, it can of course, sometimes conflict with another’s rights, say to freedom of expression (Article 10). Privacy injunctions can be obtained pre-disclosure / pre-publication, to maintain the status quo between any such competing rights until the court is able to assess where the balance should fairly be struck. But once a story breaks, it won’t often go away quietly. So when any potential threat to privacy is noticed, urgent steps should be taken, fast, to get maximum protection.

Again, we can be our own worst enemies. Always ask yourself when sharing information online: does the benefit of this being shared outweigh the risk of it becoming public? And if I share with X, will that information also be shared with Y and Z, so that I lose control? A quick look online shows you how sharing political views, personal opinions and – stupidly – even naked photos on private phones can go very wrong, no matter who you’re sharing them with.

Conclusion

Social media is now part of our daily lives. But over-sharing can be anything but fun.
Go and live your life to the fullest, of course, and ride the wave of all that the Internet has to offer. But watch out for the gnarly areas out there to knock you off. Posting everything that you do online leaves you vulnerable to those who would do you harm – reputationally, financially or even physically. And one poor choice could have lasting effects on you, your family, your professional and personal reputation and your privacy.

Before you post anything online, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does my post / blog / tweet / photo leave me exposed?
  • What image am I projecting in what I post – could it be misinterpreted?
  • Is this something I’ll regret… in a day, a month, a year?

If you’re happy when you’ve done those three basic checks, then get out there online and hang five (or even ten!).

Amber Melville-Brown

Partner | UK

Category: Blog