Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision from an Eastern District of Virginia federal judge, who effectively held that the use of the “Like” icon on Facebook is not protected by the First Amendment. The case arose when the employees of a sheriff who was up for re-election decided to “Like” his opponent’s Facebook page. Once the sheriff was re-elected, he fired those employees (as well as others). But the fired employees who had used the “Like” icon sued, arguing that the sheriff had illegally fired them for the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Hilden takes issue with both the judge’s decision to rule against the fired employees, and his approach to the case, which caused him to refuse to interpret what the Facebook “Likes” meant. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Hilden notes that the High Court has often protected and interpreted symbolic speech, and that the Court, in the recent case of Morse v. Frederick, has interpreted the meaning of ambiguous speech as well. She thus concludes that the judge should have both interpreted the “Likes,” and also held that they were First Amendment-protected.
Justia columnist Anita Ramasastry comments on the legal issues that may arise from MissTravel.com, a website that says that it matches “generous travelers who hate to travel alone with attractive travelers who would love the opportunity to travel the world for free.” The site has been compared to an online escort service, although the site itself argues that the analogy is unfair. Ramasastry considers the legal issues that may arise from the Miss Travel site—focusing both on (1) whether the site could get in trouble if illegal activity ensues, and (2) whether there is any recourse if the companion of the “generous traveler” gets into hot water when the two are overseas. Ramasastry also notes that state Attorneys General have gone after online escort ads’ host sites, but that such sites are generally immune from civil liability for user postings under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Still, Ramasastry notes, under certain circumstances such sites might be hit with criminal charges if they knowingly induce prostitution. She notes, however, that Miss Travel is importantly different from such sites.
Guest columnist and Justia writer and editor David Kemp comments on a new development on Facebook: users’ ability to add the fact that they have become organ donors as a “Life Event” on their Timelines. Kemp notes that the reason for this development is to encourage organ donation after death—and that it’s been very successful in doing so. He also comments on three likely reasons why Facebook chose this particular cause, as opposed to all the other causes that it might have promoted. While applauding the feature’s benefits, Kemp also considers some risks connected to the use of Facebook in this way—including the risk that other medically-related applications may lead to the disclosure of private health information, which could potentially implicate federal privacy laws. (Already, the “Life Events” application, Kemp points out, can reveal a broken bone or weight loss.) Ultimately, Kemp raises the question whether Facebook may evolve in such a way as to provide not just social networking, but also social engineering.
Justia guest columnist Anjali Dalal, Postdoctoral Associate in Law and Google Fellow, Information Society Project at Yale Law School, comments on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Dalal argues that while cybersecurity is a very genuine concern for the U.S., CISPA’s approach is not the way to address that concern. Dalal makes four key points to support her thesis, contending that (1) CISPA could reach common, otherwise legal Internet activities; (2) that information received from private companies under CISPA could be used for purposes other than cybersecurity; (3) that CISPA appears to effect an end-run around the Fourth Amendment; and (4) that CISPA subordinates civil-liberties protections to national security concerns. Dalal also describes the next steps that we are likely to see in the battle over CISPA.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the phenomenon of Internet mug shot galleries. Unlike a Megan’s Law database, Ramasastry explains, these galleries show photos of arrestees, who have not yet been, and may never be, convicted of any crime. That raises fairness issues, Ramasastry argues. Moreover, she notes that not only police departments, but also private companies, collect such photos together into mug-shot galleries. Because the private companies’ galleries tend to dominate search results, arrestees have no recourse except to pay the private companies to take down the photos. Because of issues like these, Ramasastry argues that this is an area that is ripe for reform—for you can now be exonerated in court, but not on Google. She also briefly discusses the phenomenon of police departments putting mug shots on their Facebook pages.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the emerging law relating to whether potential employers may ask job applicants for their Facebook (and other social-media) passwords. Ramasastry describes efforts at both the federal and state level to prevent such practices, and to preserve the privacy of Facebook (and other social-media) users. In addition, she argues that these practices should indeed be illegal (to the extent that they are not already), in part because they may facilitate illegal discrimination. Ramasastry notes that two court decisions in this area of law sided with social-media users and against employers. She also points out that Facebook itself seems to be on the side of users who would like to keep their Facebook postings private from potential employers, but argues that Facebook users are still well advised to scrub their profiles of information and photos that might make a future employer balk.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the “Kony2012” 30-minute video, which recently received over 75 million views on YouTube and film-sharing site Vimeo—with even the White House taking notice. As Ramasastry explains, the video is a profile of the brutal warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his war crimes. Kony, a native Ugandan, mounted a war against Uganda’s government, using tactics including the recruitment of child soldiers and the commission of atrocities. Ramasastry covers Kony’s crimes; notes the praise for, and criticism of, the “Kony2012” video; and concludes that, despite some drawbacks and criticisms, the “Kony2012” video has proven to be an effective way to exert pressure for justice to be done.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent Louisiana federal district court decision striking down an extremely broad and vague law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing a large variety of websites. Hilden argues that the judge’s decision, which followed a bench trial, was plainly correct under First Amendment case law. Accordingly, she contends that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is likely using the law, which he signed, and the decision, which he has vowed to appeal, for political purposes. Hilden also raises the questions whether any law restricting Internet access for ex-offenders could pass muster; if so, what it might look like; and whether individual websites’ policing themselves—or creating separate sections for adults and children—might be part of the solution.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry considers the sometimes disturbing ways in which retailers—both brick-and-mortar or online—use consumer data. Beginning with a New York Times story that related how a father learned of his teenage daughter's pregnancy when Target started sending her baby-related coupons, Ramasastry suggests that regulation is necessary if consumer privacy is to be protected, and that such regulation probably should render certain areas of private information strictly off-limits. Ramasastry discusses the Obama Administration's proposed set of consumer-privacy principles, called the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, and notes that the Administration's stance is that if Congress will not enact such principles into law, then the FTC has the power to enforce them via regulation. Ramasastry also discusses what, specifically, such principles could mean for retailers like Target. Finally, Ramasastry discusses existing websites that can help consumers protect their online privacy.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry addresses the intersection of divorce, digital identities and virtual property. In the course of her analysis, she asks an interesting question that is likely to become more and more prevalent, as virtual property becomes ever more popular and more valuable: When a couple is divorcing, what happens to their virtual property? Ramasastry also notes the role that Facebook has played as a cause or factor in many divorces, and considers the questions of whether, and how, virtual property should be divided in divorce proceedings. Moreover, noting the increasing use of social-networking activity in such proceedings, Ramasastry suggests that it's wise to be less social online—especially regarding new relationships—while divorce proceedings are still ongoing.
Justia guest columnist and Temple law professor David Post offers a clear, detailed explanation of SOPA (and similar bills), and the reasons why they eventually failed—and, Post argues, should have failed. As Post explains, SOPA’s aim was to reduce or eliminate access to websites that are dedicated to infringing activities, and are operating outside of U.S. borders. (Such offshore websites offer, for example, copyrighted music or movies for download, or sell knockoffs of trademarked products, all without proper authorization from the rights holder.) Post explains why SOPA failed, noting that it would have done damage to the technical infrastructure of the Internet. For that, and other reasons—including SOPA’s disregard for due process when it comes to foreigners and their sites—Post argues that SOPA’s plan for Internet law enforcement, based on seizing and sanctioning domain names, is deeply flawed.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on Facebook's new, mandatory “Timeline” feature, and the possibility that this feature may make identify theft targeted at Facebook users easier to accomplish. As she explains, Timeline encourages users to volunteer additional information, beyond what they had previously provided to Facebook. Also, Timeline will work in conjunction with a set of “frictionless” apps that will not notify the Facebook user each time his or her information is shared with a person or business With more and more information about people becoming available online on sites like Facebook, Ramasastry argues, both online and offline identity theft may well become simpler and more common.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Golan v. Holder, which allowed certain works by foreign authors to be pulled out of the U.S.’s public domain, and put under U.S. copyright protection. The works’ status had been changed by statute, so that the U.S. could comply with an international treaty. Drawing heavily on its prior copyright-extension decision in Eldred v. Ashcroft, the Court allowed the works at issue in Golan to be newly subjected to copyright—despite arguments to the contrary that were based on the Copyright and Patent Clause, and on the First Amendment. In dissent, Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Alito, argued that the public-domain works at issue ought to retain their current status, due in part to First Amendment concerns; in part to practical problems, such as problems with “orphan works,” the copyright status of which is difficult and costly to determine; and in part to a utilitarian reading of the Clause.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry points out that even if we are using the “If I Die” app, which allows Facebook users to send a final message to loved ones, there are many other aspects of our digital lives that will also need attention when we die, and for which we should also plan. Ramasastry covers the provisions for user death in the Terms of Service (ToS) of popular online services such as Yahoo!, Gmail, Facebook, Apple, and YouTube. She also considers questions relating to the inheritance of digital property ranging from copyrighted online work, to virtual property with real-world value. Ramasastry also comments on why one might want to use a “digital undertaker” service; on the need to amend states’ law across the country in order to protect virtual property; and on the state-law question whether the rights of privacy and publicity can—and should—survive a person’s death.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean continues his series about cyberbullying and harassment on Twitter. In this installment, Part Two in the ongoing series, Dean comments on possible ways to end and/or punish Twitter bullying. Dean notes that the large majority of Twitter users are friendly and amicable, but points out that there are also a few malcontents on Twitter. These users, he explains, engage in calculated efforts to hurt, embarrass, falsely discredit, or defame others, based on their beliefs or Tweets. How should peaceable Twitter users deal with the troublemakers in their midst? Dean offers interesting advice—based in part on Twitter's own rules and its recommendations for dealing with bullies, and in part on the possibility of invoking outside avenues to address the problem.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the potential uses of social networking information in the insurance industry. She notes that if, for instance, a person’s Facebook photos contradict information that the person has told his or her insurer, trouble may result. Ramasastry gives examples such as a claimed non-drinker whose Facebook photos reveal heavy drinking, or a claimed non-smoker who is pictured on Facebook smoking. She notes that when fraud is already suspected by an insurance company, some companies consider it fair game to then check the insured’s social media. Moreover, Ramasastry reports that the next wave of the use of social media in the insurance sector may well involve underwriters, who may begin using such media to create risk profiles of potential insureds. She describes Deloitte’s approach, and explains why using social media is a logical next step for underwriters, who already access massive stores of data regarding potential insureds. Ramasastry also notes some of the risks of these developments—such as an insurer’s taking inferences from a social media profile that are not accurate (say, due to a mistagged photo), or that cannot be fairly generalized (such as a photo of a teetotaler taking a single sip of a drink to be polite).
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a Portland, Oregon-based federal district judge’s ruling in a case where a key question was when—if ever—a blogger can count as a journalist. The judge, addressing a defamation suit that was brought against the blogger, declined to allow her to invoke two Oregon laws that were meant to protect journalists by (1) requiring potential defamation plaintiffs to give journalists who are potential defamation defendants a chance to correct or retract the allegedly defamatory statements, if the plaintiffs want to recover their full damages; and (2) allowing journalists to protect their confidential sources by keeping them anonymous. In addition, the judge—moving on from Oregon-law issues to federal-law issues—refused to grant bloggers the right to invoke favorable U.S. Supreme Court case law regarding damages unless the bloggers qualified as journalists under the judge’s multi-factor test. Hilden takes issue with both of the judge’s Oregon law rulings, and, to some extent, also with his proposed multi-factor test as to who counts as a journalist.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on an interesting decision, issued this month by a federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, regarding an indictment alleging the violation of a federal anti-harassment statute. Hilden first provides the factual background of the case—in which federal prosecutors alleged that a well-known Buddhist religious leader was being harassed, in violation of a federal stalking statute that is an amended version of part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). She then discusses some of the key issues the case raises, such as whether blog posts or tweets can count as harassment in violation of the statute, even if it is the alleged victim who opts to view the posts or tweets, rather than merely receiving them. With the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as an amicus, and the federal government seeking to defend a statute that is meant to protect women from harm, Hilden predicts that we have not heard the last of this dispute. She also notes that, in the age of the search engine, the line between seeking out material and coming across it has been blurred substantially, and in turn, the definition of harassment may also be blurring.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the possible legal implications of an airline’s “Meet and Seat” program, which allows passengers to find out information about other travelers, and select the person whom they will sit next to on a flight, based on Facebook profiles and LinkedIn accounts. The upside of the program is that fliers can network with each other, or even have a first date while in the air. But the downside, Ramasastry argues, may be considerable, depending on how the details of the program are fleshed out. Ramasastry anticipates possible problems with fictitious profiles, sexual and other types of harassment, discrimination, and even de facto segregation if groups decide to sit together based on race, religion, or the like. Ramasastry also points to group-then-go charters, made easier by smart phone technology, as a less problematic way to employ social networking to ensure that travelers can opt to fly with people who share their interests and destinations.