Editorial: Mind what you say on internet

16:00, Dec 26 2013

It is odd that 20 years after email started to become ubiquitous, 10 years after Facebook began its relentless rise and two or three years after the arrival of Twitter, many people still do not grasp the limits to what it is appropriate to say in an email message or Twitter or Facebook posting.

The instinct remains strong among users of these essentials to modern life to assume that they are essentially private mediums of exchange and to give vent to emotions or to attempt jokes that might pass unnoticed if kept strictly between friends but can have devastating consequences if they reach a wider audience. One would not have thought that the point still needs to be made, but two recent cases emphatically show that it does.

The first concerned a tweet made by Justine Sacco, the director of communications for a giant United States media company, IAC. The racist and insensitive message was only 12 words long and was made on a Twitter account that had only a few dozen followers, but in the 12 hours it took for Sacco to fly from London to Cape Town where she was going on holiday it had spread around the world and had been read by millions. The outrage was monumental and Sacco's career was shattered.

That case was open and shut. Sacco may have intended her words to be read only by her Twitter followers, but it was open and the message could easily be repeated, as she, and anyone else who uses a publicly open Twitter account, should know. Open accounts are not only as public as an old-fashioned postcard but much more so. Because whereas a postcard can be read, more or less, only by those who can get their hands on it, technology enables electronic messages to be broadcast to untold millions.

A recent Employment Court case, although fathoms down the scale in its impact from the Sacco one, raised similar, if slightly more complex issues. An IT employee for an Australian company involved in insurance work after the Christchurch earthquake had challenged his dismissal. Among the evidence adduced against him was a Facebook exchange in which he referred offensively to an Australian manager as "a dickhead". The employee argued that this message was intended to be private and he had his privacy settings on Facebook to ensure that.

The court declined to accept the argument. It said that even with the privacy setting, nearly 200 people, many of them beyond the company, could have read the remarks. More tellingly, the court also noted that any of those people, if they had chosen to do so, could have passed on the information to a potentially limitless audience. People putting information on a Facebook page know that it will likely extend way beyond the "friends" that have been allowed to read it, the court said.

The genius of electronic messages of any kind are the ease with which they are transmitted and repeated. As many early users of email quickly found out, those benefits are also their potential pitfall. It is a lesson that has to be learned all over again with each new wonderful development of electronic communication.


The Press