As technology continues to grow and evolve, now more than ever, so many aspects of our lives take place online.
From keeping up with friends on social media to having work meetings over Zoom, being able to navigate the internet has never been more important - and while many of us feel comfortable handling ourselves on the world wide web, there is actually a whole host of ways that your digital behaviour could land you in serious trouble.
Laura Baglow, Solicitor-Advocate and Director of social media, internet and media law firm NetRights, said: “There are numerous different areas of law that are relevant when we post content online.
“Defamation, infringement of copyright, data protection, harassment and contempt of court are just some of them.
“Because it is quick and easy to post online, at the click of a button people can publish something in the spur of the moment which is read by thousands and can end up having unexpected and serious legal consequences.
“It is good practice to pause, re-read and consider before you post, and if you are in any doubt, seek advice.”
‘Writing a derogatory post or review may be libellous’
Baglow explains that writing a derogatory social media post or review about a person or company could be considered as libellous in certain circumstances - even if you didn’t mean it to be so.
The same could even apply if you repost or share someone else’s libellous post.
The Internet Law Centre explains that online reviews can be regarded as defamation of character “whenever one or more parts of a review are factually inaccurate or misleading”.
“Unfortunately, many of those who write reviews on the internet do not realise this, that a ‘one sided’ internet review could actually be defamatory even if no lies are included,” the Internet Law Centre says.
For example, earlier this year, a man was ordered to pay £25k in damages for writing a negative online review for a law firm.
In the review, the man wrote that the firm was “another scam solicitor” and a “total waste of money”.
The judge said: “In my judgement, it is beyond any dispute that the words complained of had a clear tendency to put people off dealing with the Claimant firm. It is difficult to conclude that the Defendant had any other purpose in mind when posting his review.”
‘Online targeting could amount to harassment’
If you target someone online, then this behaviour could amount to harassment, which could result in serious legal consequences.
Baglow says that for conduct to count as harassment, it needs to occur on more than one occasion and include alarming the person or causing them distress.
The Met Police force explains: “If there has only been a single communication, it’s unlikely it would qualify as harassment, but could be considered a malicious communication.
“For such an offence to be committed, a message must be sent to another person, or sent via a public communications network, that is indecent, grossly offensive, obscene, threatening or menacing.”
Regular offensive or abusive messages on social media, or elsewhere, can also be classed as a form of stalking.
If you have been the victim of harassment, you can take action in the civil courts against the person harassing you - any claims need to be made within six years of when the harassment happened.
You can also still take civil court action even if the person harassing you hasn’t been found guilty of a criminal offence, according to Citizens Advice.
‘Posting private photos or details could be a breach of data protection’
When it comes to posting pictures, you have to be careful that you don’t post a photo of someone without their consent in a setting where they would have a reasonable expectation of privacy - for example, in their garden, home, or of their children.
You also have to be careful with drone footage as well.
According to Baglow, the same is true if you were to publish personal details about someone online, such as information about their medical conditions, religion or their address.
Posting private photographs or details could be a misuse of private information and breach of data protection rights.
‘Social media posts could result in contempt of court’
If a social media post contains information which risks unfairly influencing a court case - or poses a substantial risk of serious prejudice to active court proceedings - then its poster could be in contempt of court, which is a criminal offence which may be punishable by imprisonment.
Solicitor General, Robert Buckland QC MP, said: “Social media users must think before they post - the rules are the same for those in traditional media, and being found in contempt of court could result in a fine or up to two years in prison.”
You may be in contempt of court if you post publicly on social media on a court case - for example, you should not:
- Say whether you think a person is guilty or innocent
- Refer to someone’s previous convictions
- Name someone the judge has allowed to be anonymous, even if you did not know this
- Name victims, witnesses and offenders under 18
- Name sex crime victims
- Share any evidence of facts about a case that the judge has said cannot be made public
What should I do if I’m in trouble?
Baglow said: “If you have unwittingly got yourself into trouble online then it is usually wise to remove the offending post(s) as soon as you become aware that it is problematic, in order to limit any damage it may cause.
“You would be advised to seek legal advice if the matter proceeds any further.”
Additionally, if you’re on the receiving end of online abuse, then you also have options available to you.
A lawyer could seek swift removal of the online posts and sometimes an apology, payment of legal costs and compensation.
If a person is being harassed online, then an injunction can also be sought to prevent further posts being made.
The victim can also notify the police of online abuse and harassment. Alternatively, there are also groups and capacities available to those who are suffering from online abuse.