It's a social world out there.

The use of cell phones and social media are widespread in a group of people who least prepared for the power they hold, teens.  teenagers use social media and cell phones in many ways, often they do not realize the consequences that can come from their actions using these technologies. Teens, usually include people ages 12 -17, these young people are still developing social skills and in 2010 technology is having a great impact on how this happens.  Their constant connection to one another provided through the internet and mobile phones is changing how they communicate. The factors are also forcing adults to look into what is happening in chat rooms and through text message conversations.

The most notable mention of teens and how they have been impacted by social media and mobile devices is sexting. Sexting, according to a Pew Research center article is, “the creating, sharing and forwarding of sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images by minor teens.” (1)

This phenomenon has hit headlines in many states as this provocative material makes the rounds to friends, and even in some cases families.  The exchange and sharing of this kind of material is detrimental to emotional development in teens. It is well-known that bullying can happen around body issues in teens, and the sending of a nude or nearly nude photo is open to all kinds of criticism in this age group.  It is also often the case the photo or message was sent to someone the user trusted, and this can cause teens to develop issues with trust. The sending of sexts is not a good idea for teens, and it is vital that these kinds of things are worked into school curriculum and talked about by parents.

According to the Pew Research study 75% of teens ages 12 -17 have cell phones and 66% use text messaging. Of this group 4% report having sent a sext, while 15% reported having received sexts. (1) These messages are not going unnoticed, as many legal cases have come about around them. The weight that comes with prosecution around sharing of this explicit material is heavy. While it varies state to state, it never goes without punishment.

“Teens are being charged with everything from “disorderly conduct” and “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material” to felony “sexual abuse of children…, criminal [use] of a communications facility, or open lewdness.Legislatures in a handful of states are stepping in to consider making laws that downgrade the charges for creating or trading sexually suggestive images of minors by text from felonies to misdemeanors. In 2009, the Vermont and Utah state legislatures downgraded the penalties for minors and first-time perpetrators of “sexting.” Ohio has legislation pending to criminalize, at a milder level, sexting between minors.” (1)

Social media, texting and mobile phone use is likely going to continue to increase, and teens will continue to use these technology during a developmentally vital time. The above laws will continue to evolve as the ways in which teens are using and abusing these technologies done, however, it is vital that stay in the forefront of adults.  It is extremely important that parents and educators are up to speed on these technologies, not only how to use them, but how teens are choosing to use them.  Web 2.0 and smart phones are amazing technologies that hold a great deal of attributes teens can benefit from, but they will never do so without being taught. Both negative and positive uses of these technologies need to be made clear, let’s teach this generation how to best use the technology they are lucky to have.

1) Lenhart, A. (2009, December 9). Pew Internet & American Life Project. Teens & Sexting – Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved January 31, 2010, from pewresearch.org/pubs/1440/teens-sexting-text-messages

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The completion of this independent study around the legal implications of social media will be in the form of a research paper.  My of reading and research thus far  have made one thing clear, the legal system, is having trouble keeping up with technology, therefore I will work to research the following question:

How can the US legal system and its current communications acts handle the issues that have arisen—such as copyright infringement, users privacy, and defamation—considering the rapid growth of social media and networking?

Social media is an umbrella that covers many kinds of sites, services and devices.  While each area of social is causing legal waves of different forms, social networking is often at the forefront of legal cases involving social media. Social networking invites the kinds of information sharing and user interaction that other forms of social media do not.  Facebook and MySpace have been at the helm of social networking for years, and they have certainly had their share of legal troubles. While each of the aforementioned sites have worked tirelessly at refining privacy settings and working to limit issues like copyright infringement, their work is never done. In the world of social networking innovation in key, and with innovation comes new uses (that often unplanned), all these uses must be considered from a legal safety standpoint.

As I mentioned copyright infringement is often an area social networking sites need to be careful of.  Users are posting copyrighted photos, videos and music all the time, sites must work day in and day out looking and removing this material. As stated on a Once social networking site that has done this with a good deal of success if YouTube. While users can post videos of all kinds YouTube combs through each and every video that comes to their site. If a video hold copyrights it is removed, if the music used in the video is protected the sound is removed, inappropriate content in removed, at least that is the idea. In 2007 the site may have made a mistake, as stated by The Bar Association website,

“Viacom and YouTube are currently litigating over the appropriate application of these provisions to social networking Web sites. In early 2007, Viacom brought a lawsuit against YouTube in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for copyright infringement, seeking damages of $1 billion. Viacom claims that a large portion of the videos displayed on YouTube are copyrighted materials.” (1)

Here we see an issue of copyright coming involving two media power houses and a great deal of money. As of the yet the case has yet to reach a verdict, but provides a clear example of how legal issues are effecting even the most high-end and organized social networking sites.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace must work around copyright issues as YouTube, but are most prominently involved in cases that ensure user safety. This is because anyone can have a profile on these kinds of sites, and many people who are dangerous.  Legal teams have worked hard to ensure that these sites monitor user interaction and even report users who are registered sex offenders.  In late 2007 the New York attorney general serviced Facebook with many warnings about users safety issues.  As stated by Caroline MacCarthy on her the social cnet news blog,

“Cuomo’s office issued an open letter (click here for PDF) to Facebook accompanied by a subpoena for documents, claiming that an undercover investigation revealed that investigators posing as young users of the site (12 to 14 years old) were “repeatedly solicited by adult sexual predators.” The most troubling part, the attorney general’s office asserted, was that Facebook apparently had been slow or unresponsive in addressing many of the complaints that were lodged as investigators posed as both minors and parents of minors.” (2)

This provides a clear example of the kinds of legal issues social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace battle. The battle is one that will never end, social media sites of all kinds invite information sharing and that can often lead to legal trouble. While social networking has opened the door for many relationships, connections and learning situations that never existed before, they also are challenging legal teams and their administrators with never before seen cases. Social networking use will always invite legal complications.

1) Social Networking and the Law: Virtual Social Communities Are Creating Real Legal Issues. (n.d.). American Bar Association – Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice. Retrieved January 2, 2010, from http://www.abanet.org/buslaw/blt/2009-03-04/viscounty.shtml

2) McCarthy, C. (2007, October 1). Facebook’s legal issues escalate as N.Y. attorney general strengthens warnings | The Social – CNET News.Technology News – CNET News. Retrieved January 24, 2010, from http://news.cnet.com/8301-13577_3-9788413-36.html

Technology advances have happened at a rate in recent years that no one has been able to keep up. It seems that when users get used to a service, application or device it changes entirely. This has made the legal issues around technology hard to form. Although a foundation has been laid,  it is pretty clear at this point that, for the most part all internet use is public, what you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
To begin I would like to add a personal note about how a text message helped convict a serial arsonist near my hometown recently. Early in the morning two days after Christmas this year, a man in Northampton, Massachusetts set fires to numerous homes and cars.  The fires destroyed the property of many and killed two innocent men as they sleep in their home.  A text message he sent that night from his mobile phone is being used against him in the trial. (Story here) That is just one small example of how uses of technology are keeping a close eye on and sometimes helping to convict criminals.
A November 2009 story from CNN more fully describes the kinds of cases that are taking place in courtrooms across the nation.  These cases involve many new media including, Twitter, Facebook and Google Earth. The article starts by pointing out these cases would have before been “impossible” years ago.  Many of the cases named in the article point to issues of libel, defamatory and “derogatory” comments about products or services.  Millions of users flock to Twitter to do nothing other than complain about and review goods.  Courtney Love did just this when she took to her Twitter account to complain about a fashion designer she used. This case is yet to reach a verdict. New technologies are making it hard for courts to decide on laws, as these laws are working in an ever evolving world of media and always come with a set a very different circumstances.  It is unlikely a concrete set of guidelines will ever be in place around social media, however, what you do online can almost always be used against you.  Always use social media and the internet as a whole with care.
1) Tanneeru, M. (2009, November 17). Can the law keep up with technology? – CNN.com.CNN.com – Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. Retrieved January 23, 2010, from http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/11/17/law.technology/index.html

After watching the Future of Journalism hearing given to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation I had to think long and hard about many of the comments made during the hearing. Much of what was said is going unnoticed by Web 2.0 users. Each day millions of people log in to hundreds of social media sites to gain access to information. The kind of information they find online, generations before them found through the airwaves, via newspaper and more traditional media such as television. These kinds of services that have provided  news and entertainment to the world have almost always come with a price.  The internet and the news it now provides in a minute-by-minute format is gaining momentum over traditional journalism.  Newspapers readership has been on a steady decline for years. Big name publishers have been closing their doors in major cities across the country, all because readership in looking to the internet where news services are often free.

I knew these things were going on, I’ve kept pretty up-to-date on why, where and when these companies are choosing to back out of the newspaper industry, but someone had not considered how this was changing journalism and investigative reporting.  Some of the comments made about how these changes are making tenure newspaper reporters feel are intriguing. These journalists took pride in a craft they had worked long and hard at perfecting. They went to go everyday to research stories, find leads and produce results like Watergate. Today, anyone can call themselves a journalist, anyone can write for the world to see, and many of these, untrained, people are quite successful in doing so.  Does this mean we are losing out on what was once a trade, a skill that took time to learn and perfect?  When high school students go to college and study journalism what does that mean they want to be? What kinds of jobs will these people hold?

These questions lead me to ponder how social media is most often free of charge, thus many of the people who produce information are not being paid.  Twitter has little to no form of income, people just share news, the same goes for Facebook and Craigslist. These kinds of services have led many away from searching classifieds and looking to the newspaper for news. I wondered, “Can this change? Could these free services begin charging their users fees?” Sites like Flickr begin with a free service but if users want to get the most from the site must upgrade and pay a small fee, could sites like facbeook and twitter employ this same idea? I turned to my facebook to the answer. Asking, “Working on some grad school research and need your help FB friends! How many of you would pay for social media outlets you use? Things like twitter and facebook…if yes how much would you consider reasonable?” All told I got 19 comments,  12 of those said they would absolutely not consider paying, 5 said they would consider it and 2 said they would. My favorite comment was the following, which I feel, while blunt, holds valuable insight.

“Facebook is like smoking. Everyone says they don’t need it until they realize that it has become a huge part of their lives. furthermore, even though cig prices have doubled in the last 10 years, so has the number of smokers. people would pay….oh yes, people would pay.”

I think the above comment holds a good amount of truth. I know I would pay, online services are my main form of both news and entertainment. I need the services I use online to be productive in my professional, social and academic life. What I would pay, I am not sure. I do know that these services, if they have to could charge. Major newspaper sites like WSJ.com already charge a subscription fee for most of their content. In 2010, we are at a place where businesses not only need a website, they must put further consideration into how it will affect their business model and revenue.  Watching the senate hearing gave me so much to think about with regard to how social media and its legal implications will look in the future. I would urge you to take the time and watch it.

1) Ibargüen, Alberto (2009) Statement to US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation at The Future of Journalism hearing http://commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Hearings.Hearing&Hearing_ID=7f8df1a5-5504-4f4c-ba34-ba3dc3955c61

Social media is looked at very differently from other, more tradition mediums, for many reasons.  First the demographic for social media users vary widely. Many tween and teens take advantage of social media networks, thus the laws around it must be written and developed in different ways than that of other media outlets are used to.  Second, the content is monitored and edited in ways far different from other media. Virtually anyone can produce and edit content of social media sites, sharing, adding comments and pass along content is all part of how and why social media work. However, these things that have made social media so popular in recent years also make it far more dangerous.

Laws have been formed around social media in order to make an attempt at preventing harm to users.  However, users must realize that what they produce can be used against them and has nothing to do with the site through which they are communicating. There are many laws out there but, as explained by Kevin Fayle, is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This act of the first of its kind to make an attempt at regulating internet use.  It states,

“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes website from any liability resulting from the publication of information provided by another. This usually arises in the context of defamation, but several courts have expanded it to cover other sorts of claims as well.

Thus, if a user posts defamatory or otherwise illegal content, Section 230 shields the social network provider from any liability arising out of the publication. Websites that, in whole or in part, create or develop contested information, on the other hand, are deemed “content providers” that do not benefit from the protections of Section 230.” (1)

Here we can see that even in 1996 (2), when the act was written, law makers felt it important to address defamation in internet use.  This act clearly starts that the network provider will not be held accountable for content.  It is important for users to be well informed on their rights around internet use, as well as the rights of the sites they are using.  Laws of this nature are ever evolving as new cases come about and new sites are introduced to social media.

As I continue with this section of my blog, addressing the legal implication of social media, I will continue to share cases of this nature, please feel free to comment on cases you are familiar with, as this area is one dealing with everyday changes.

1) Fayle, K. (n.d.). Understanding the Legal Issues for Social Networking Sites and Their Users. FindLaw for Legal Professionals | Law & Legal Information. Retrieved January 2, 2010, from http://technology.findlaw.com/articles/00006/010966.html

2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communications_Decency_Act

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