Instant Messaging Legal Issues – Five Legal Concerns With Instant Messaging
1. Internet messaging legal issue: Defamation – If you publish defamatory statements via internet messages you may face legal issues for civil defamation, and in some countries criminal liability. Defamation is a tort, or legal wrong. It is a general term which is used globally, but in some countries can be divided into two categories, libel and slander. Australia has abolished the distinction between libel and slander. A defamatory statement is one which lowers a person’s reputation in the minds of right thinking members of society generally, or causes them to be shunned or avoided.
Libel refers to defamation by writing, images, broadcast or published works, and tends to be in a permanent form, although in England defamatory statements made in theatre are treated as a form of libel. Slander refers to defamation which occurs through speech, sounds, sign language, or gestures; generally communications of a more transient or ephemeral nature. It isn’t always a simple task to assess whether a communication falls into the category of libel or slander. However there is an important legal distinction between libel and slander where the distinction remains. Libel is legally actionable without the need to prove damages, whereas slander requires that the person who is slandered prove special damage to succeed in an action.
There are four exceptions to the above rule in relation to slander where a person can sue if they have been slandered without proving they have suffered damage. The first is where statements have been published accusing a person of committing a crime which can result in imprisonment. The second situation is where statements have been made that a person has a serious contagious disease. The other two categories include suggesting a person is unable to carry out their trade or business or making statements that they are sexually unchaste.
The victim in the above cases of slander only needs to prove a statement has been published. In Commonwealth countries publication of a defamatory statement takes place where the statement is first perceived by a third party. This means that over the internet you can expose yourself potentially to any jurisdiction’s laws of defamation and the person who has been defamed can try to sue you in their country’s courts. Whether they can actually do so depends on several factors.
When engaging in instant messaging it is easy to forget that you could face legal issues if you commit defamation. The victim only needs to show your internet message was published to a third party for you to encounter legal issues if the statement was defamatory or falls into one of the categories above. If the victim were by themselves at the time the statement was received, this would not give rise to legal issues, however if a third party was present when the instant message was transmitted, you could face potential liability for defamation.
Instant messages are similar to other electronic communications like email, posts to forums, bulletin boards, usenet groups and websites, although the latter are all sent via a host computer and stored in a tangible permanent medium until altered or deleted. If they are defamatory in nature, they would constitute libel. By contrast, a communication made by instant messaging (IM), internet relay chat (IRC) or video messaging would probably constitute slander as the user who has engaged in internet messaging is involved in instantaneous real time synchronous communication, analogous to a phone call. The only difference is that internet messaging technology can now entail the transmission of text, graphics, files, video and/or audio. Such communications being instantaneous and interactive resemble the legal character of telephone communications, although when fixed in a tangible medium as an attachment and exposed to a wider audience, they could also constitute libel.
The user who publishes a slanderous statement through internet messages (IM) may believe there are no legal issues which are different from ordinary email or other use of the internet. However it is likely that the user who publishes a communication via an IM will be creating potential legal issues for slander. It is possible to save a text conversation arising through internet messaging (IM) as messages are logged in a local message history and can be retrieved.
2. Internet Messaging legal issues: Invasion of Privacy – public disclosure of private facts
Even if you send an internet message (IM) that isn’t defamatory, you may still face legal issues in some jurisdictions for invasion of privacy or breach of confidence. The legal issues will depend on the laws of the jurisdiction, however if the person you are involved in internet messaging with has a reasonable expectation of privacy and a belief that they are only engaged in instant messaging IM with one person you may face potential legal issues. There is no defence of truth for invasion of privacy. There may be potential legal issues if a victim can establish that they you have engaged in unreasonable disclosure of private facts through your internet messaging (IM).
Instant Messaging (IM) chat transcripts fall within the legal definition of electronically stored information (ESI), and are therefore treated the same way as emails and other electronic records for discovery purposes. Instant messages (IM) are treated the same as e-mails under the discovery laws of most jurisdictions. A user may face legal issues if the records are subpoenaed by the person who alleges an invasion of privacy or other legal wrong, and requests that the third party present give testimony to the effect that they were present when the instant message (IM) was sent. Many people using text or instant messaging wrongly presume if their messages are sent via instant messaging or sent on a mobile phone they are deleted once they have been transmitted. However, most service providers retain a record of text messages and instant messages from one to three months after they are exchanged.
3. Internet Messaging Legal Issues – Cyberharrassment and Stalking
An online Instant Messaging IM user can become a victim of cyber harassment, stalking, or misuse of telecommunication networks which can constitute a criminal offence. Employers and individuals need to protect themselves from legal issues from instant messaging which is used inappropriately. The same is true of other electronic communications although instant messaging (IM) is possibly more susceptible to misuse involving cyber harassment, discrimination, online hate speech, bullying and stalking due to it’s immediate, informal and intrusive nature. A user needs to know how to protect themselves by reporting a user misusing instant messaging IM technology and knowing how to block them from sending further offensive messages. Just like email those using instant messaging can still try to reach the user by changing screen names. This medium of internet communication allows direct real time communications between employees and corporations without giving much thought to the legal issues which could arise when drafting acceptable use policies for email. These systems are regarded as even more casual in nature than emails which makes them a tool more susceptible to misuse for the purpose of sexual harassment, cyber-bullying and other offensive communications.
The legal issues surrounding use of IM were widely publicised when a former congressman Mark Foley was found to have sent explicitly sexual instant messages (IM) to house pages and persons under 18 from his congressional office personal computer. The scandal led to concern about legal issues and warnings about the legal consequences of inappropriate internet messages. Businesses have a legal responsibility under occupational health and safety workplace laws to provide a safe work environment free of harassment, discrimination and other illegal conduct. An organisation needs instant messaging (IM) management tools to deal with the legal issues posed by use of internet messaging IM in the corporate environment. A survey conducted in 2007 revealed that 30% of participants had been the recipients of inappropriate instant messaging communications.
4. Internet Messaging Legal Issues – Security Risks & Compliance Risks: Instant Messaging (IM) has been described by security consultants as a preferred method for hackers to conduct phishing attacks and circulate attachments with computer viruses. More than 1100 security attacks were registered by the Instant Message Security Centre over a three year period. Viruses, trojans and spyware can quickly propagate through an infected users’ internet messaging buddy list. Instant messaging (IM) can lead to wastage of corporate assets, time and resources when abused by employees engaged in social interactions on work time and also through a lack of awareness of the particular security vulnerabilities posed by internet messaging systems. As IM usually occurs using text, it is more vulnerable to eavesdropping, and as user passwords are stored in text, they are accessible to anyone with physical access to the user’s computer. It isn’t feasible to encrypt the password on many instant messaging software applications. Additionally, instant message software demands that the user open UDP ports to the world, which enhances security threats. The use of Instant messaging (IM) solutions in the workplace gives rise to legal issues in terms of compliance with data security, storage and retention laws. Business communications in most jurisdictions must be archived and able to be retrieved under regulations. Many organisations may not appreciate the legal issues and the requirement to preserve instant messages.
5. Internet Messaging Legal Issues: Leakage of embarrassing information, company intelligence or intellectual property – Security breaches can mean that trade secrets/confidential information and a company’s intellectual property is vulnerable to being sent over an insecure network and falling into the hands of a competitor. All kinds of embarrassing and sensitive information can be discovered through IM disclosures. Just like email communications and other electronic records, internet messaging can lead to the discovery of embarrassing corporate secrets and valuable business intelligence, however Employers have been slower to recognise the legal issues associated with instant messaging.
The advent of web 2.0 and social networking sites has created similar legal issues to those associated with IM facilities. It is important that individuals and businesses turn their minds to the unique legal issues and risks posed by this medium of communication in addition to the broader issues associated with the use of electronic data.