Ask an attorney: Social networking pitfalls

by Holger Blug Kaiserslautern Legal Services Center

Q: All my friends are into social networking. Are there any legal pitfalls I should be aware of before I post?

A: Social networking has become commonplace, but many users remain blissfully ignorant of the many risks and pitfalls it entails. The internet is not a legal vacuum. You are not invisible when you go online. What you don’t know can hurt you.

When you join a social network, you have to disclose a lot of personal and private information. By doing so, you make yourself vulnerable. There is a good chance strangers will try to gather information about you and use it to harass you or even plan criminal acts. Hence, you should know and use the tools every social network provides to protect your privacy. Most of the privacy settings need to be adjusted by you, as the basic settings of social networks usually do not include sufficient pre-installed protections. Think twice before you post information about your new flat-screen television and then tell your Facebook friends that you will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Burglars might take this as an invitation to break into your house while you’re away.

Be careful what you post. Employers routinely search the internet and social networks for background information on job applicants and employees. Posting photos of you and your barely dressed drunken friends partying could seriously complicate your job search or your chances for promotion. Employees have been fired for making derogatory remarks about supervisors and co-workers on social networks.

Also, be careful when you post photos or video clips showing other individuals without first obtaining their permission, as this could be considered a violation of their privacy rights and could easily lead to lawsuits or even criminal investigations. Photos or videos produced by someone else are often protected by copyright and cannot be used without the authorization of the copyright holder. Even choosing a cartoon character for your profile picture is most likely a copyright infringement and could result in the copyright holder seeking a cease-and-desist order and claiming financial compensation.

Publishing insults, slanderous statements and incorrect facts on social networks is not allowed and can also lead to lawsuits and criminal consequences if the authorities find out or someone reports you to the police. Even if you are not the author of the insulting or hostile comment, you can be held accountable for hitting the “LIKE” button, signaling your concurrence.

Once you post something, it is almost impossible to delete it from cyberspace. It takes on a life of its own and can have serious legal repercussions. Americans stationed in Germany are subject to German law, and German courts do not interpret freedom of speech as broadly as American courts do. So be prudent when posting, especially when talking about other individuals or controversial subjects. Loose lips sink more than ships.

Editor’s note: This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. You should always consult an attorney for specific legal questions.