What Is Social Networking?
A social network service is created to build online communities of people who share interests. They are Web- based and provide a variety of ways for users to interact, such as e-mail and instant messaging services. Social networking has encouraged new ways to communicate and share information. Such Web sites are used by millions of people every day.
The popularity of social networking sites has grown tremendously in the last few years. They help people stay in touch. They help small businesses connect with other businesses and clients. They give people the chance to network with people they'd never be able to meet otherwise.
However, with the growing popularity and mainstream use of these sites, there's also a dangerous side. There have been many hackers and scammers. People can create fake profiles. It becomes easier to break privacy and copyright laws. And most recently, these sites have become an avenue for crimes. Criminals have even used social networking sites to boast about crimes they've committed.
Digital Criminal Acts and Cyber Confessions
To stay connected, users of social networking Web sites typically announce their whereabouts, and events such as births, graduations and parties. Lately, criminals have been announcing their crimes on the Web sites.
In South Carolina, the police were able to track down a bank robber after he posted a message about the crime on his MySpace page. Joseph Wade Northington robbed a bank in North Augusta, S.C., and made off with $3,924. Northington updated his profile with the message "One in the head still ain't dead!!!!!! On tha run for robbin a bank Love all of yall."1 He also changed his status to "Wanted." He was turned in by an acquaintance that recognized him on surveillance photos released to the networking site. However, the incriminating evidence Northington posted online will likely be used in court and undermine any legal defense he may have.
Crimes Resulting from Information Gathered on Social Networking Sites
A family in Arizona had their home burglarized after they twittered their vacation plans. Israel Hyman and his wife use Twitter to promote their home-based video business, IzzyVideo.com and have nearly 2,000 followers on the site. It's possible that the status message led to the burglary by broadcasting their travel dates on Twitter.
Pictures on Social Networking Sites Being Exploited
In most social networking Web sites, after you post a picture in your profile page, you can't keep track of where it ends up.
In the summer of 2007, then Miss New Jersey Amy Polumbo's private Facebook photos were made public in the tabloids. The pictures were taken as part of a blackmail attempt and showed her in racy poses with her boyfriend drinking alcohol. A controversy over these photos erupted, causing the Miss America organization to consider dethroning her.
In January 2009, a personal photo that a Texas teenager uploaded on Flickr ended up being used by Virgin Mobile for an Australian advertisement. The teen, Allison Chang, and her mother sued, claiming her right of publicity had been exploited and that the use of her photo violated licensing laws.
Similarly, Allison Stokke was a high school pole vaulter who became a sex symbol and internet sensation after the blog WithLeather.com posted her photo. The photo was taken during a competition and showed her resting with her pole across her shoulder in her standard track and field uniform. After the photo was featured online by various bloggers, Stokke received thousands of MySpace messages and e-mails and had a competition video posted on YouTube.
The Washington Post reports that the photo eventually found its way to Matt Ufford of WithLeather.com, who wrote, "meet pole vaulter Allison Stokke. . . . Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds."2 The original photographer threatened to sue Ufford and someone even created a fake Facebook page for Stokke which was eventually taken down.
Cyber Bullying and Emotional Distress
Kids today not only need to worry about actual bullies in school. They now have to worry about a new phenomenon in digital space called cyber bullying. In 2006, Olivia Garnder, a 13-year-old girl with epilepsy was the focus of a mean girls' club called "Olivia Haters" that kids from her middle school set up on MySpace. While obviously upset, Gardner's family could not pursue the girls for any sort of crime.
More extreme, the tragic suicide of Missouri teenager Megan Meier made headlines in 2007. Meier was a victim of a cyber prank that involved a classmate's mother, Lori Drew. Mrs. Drew created a fake MySpace account and pretended to be a boy named Josh who befriended Meier online for the purpose of determining whether or not Meier was gossiping about her daughter. "Josh" and Megan became close.
However, Josh eventually said that "he didn't want to be Meier's friend anymore, that he had heard she wasn't nice to her friends."3 Afterwards, "Josh" continued to post messages harassing Meier, calling her "fat" and a "slut." Meier ended up hanging herself and six weeks later her parents found out about the fraudulent MySpace account created by Mrs. Drew. In May 2008, Mrs. Drew was indicted on three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress, and one count of criminal conspiracy.
Sex Crimes, Assault and Murder
Social networking sites can serve as an easy venue for sex predators and bullies to find their victims.
In 2006, seven teenage girls from Middletown, CT, reported to authorities that they had had consensual sex "with men who turned out to be older than they claimed," The girls, all under the age of 18 and as young as 12, met the men on MySpace.
In another incident, a minor and her mother sued MySpace after she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old man she contacted on the social networking site. MySpace has been criticized for not doing enough to protect minors from sexual predators.
The digital revolution has caused an upsurge in child pornography, which has become more accessible to computer users. Those posting child pornography pictures as well as those that access these images can be charged with the crime. Interestingly, charges can extend to teens. In Rhode Island in March 2006, 19-year-old Elizabeth Muller and a 16-year-old girl were charged for uploading pornographic pictures of themselves on MySpace. Even though the pictures were of themselves, this was still a crime.
There is no doubt that social networking sites are changing the nature of relationships and business associations. However, now they're even changing the nature of crimes. Cyber-bulling, cyber confessions and stolen "property" are all commonly reported on social networking sites.
Judges and lawyers will be facing interesting problems stemming from social networking sites including licensing and identity issues and the more difficult criminal activities traced to these sites, such as cyber assault, cyber-bulling and infliction of emotional distress via the Internet.
Furthermore, they'll need to address the question of whether something posted on someone's own page can be used against them as incriminating evidence? All of these will be the new issues to perplex judges and lawyers. Perhaps they can create a social network group for it.
Use discretion and common sense when posting information on social networking sites. Keep in mind that you can't always trace where messages, posts and pictures eventually end up and who will access them. Remember, just because you eventually delete a post from your site, doesn't mean that it's deleted forever and can be easily accessed at a later time. Don't post information that can result in an injury, such as your empty home during a vacation. Finally, don't threaten anyone on the sites, even as a joke.
1Dong Ngo, Bank Robber Arrested after Boasting of Crime on MySpace, CNet News, May 29, 2009, http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-10251862-93.html accessed Oct. 5, 2009.
2Eli Saslow, Teen Tests Internet's Lewd Track Record, The Washington Post, May 29, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/28/AR2007052801370.html accessed Oct. 4, 2009.
3Prosecutor; No Criminal Charges in MySpace Suicide, FoxNews, Dec. 3, 2007, http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,314620,00.html accessed Oct. 4, 2009.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If someone is harassing me or my child via e-mail or the Internet, what kind of legal action can I take? A civil case, to stop the harassment or for damages, or criminal action, or both?
- My child got into a disagreement with another youth, leaving less-than-nice messages on their social networking site pages. Now my child's public school is taking disciplinary action against her. Can the school do that if the incidents didn't have anything to do with school and if my child didn't do anything illegal?
- I've been threatened by someone on the Internet - what must the police do to help me? Anything until something physical happens?