Social media – some legal considerations

A couple of weeks ago a Tweet from the Intranet Benchmarking Forum brought to my attention an article on a recent judgement in the USA related to social media use. In the article it was noted that The National Labor Relations Board supported the rights of workers to post complaints about their company on Facebook. In the USA the 1935 National Labor Relations Act establishes workers’ right to take collective action to improve their working conditions. In this particular case a group of employees had raised an issue about the conduct of their employer and had been fired by the company. Under the NLRB judgement they won their jobs back together with back wages.

Yesterday I attended a British Computer Society meeting at which there was a presentation by Anastasia Mavroudis, an employment solicitor with Fisher Meredith LLP. Anastasia ran through the issues around the use of social media which might be deemed to bring an organisation in to disrepute. There is an important case in English law which was brought by Virgin Airlines after thirteen cabin crew had posted comments in a discussion on Facebook which Virgin Atlantic said brought the company into disrepute and insulted staff. The staff were dismissed by Virgin on the grounds that the employees were in breach of company policies.  Even though only people subscribing to the Facebook sites of the staff concerned would have seen the comment and not the general public Virgin were within their rights under company policies. Anastasia emphasied the importance of making sure that corporate policies on the use of social media were carefully drafted and that all staff were made aware of their responsibilities. This includes not just the use of personal, external, social media but also internal media including email.

There are two important points to note. The first is that organisations should ensure that social media policies are drawn up with advice from lawyers who understand not just the letter of the law but the implications of precedents that have been set in prior cases. As cases go to judgement these precedents may change and social media policies need to take these into account. The second is that there are often fundamental differences between not only US law and English law but English law and the law as interpreted in other EU countries. For example Germany is taking an especially close look at cloud computing services at present. I have used the term ‘English law’ very deliberately as Scottish law and precedents may be different. These are complex legal issues and as a non-lawyer I am concerned that even in this brief note I may not have totally represented the legal situation in either the USA or the UK. So during the day you might just want to check when your social media policies were last reviewed by a lawyer in all the countries you operate in and that are they visible and in an appropriate language on the intranet and not just listed with 213 others on the Policies A-Z page.

Martin White