V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Facebook in court

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, May, 2009.

Part 2 in 3-day series

Be careful what you post on Facebook or MySpace, because anything you say or upload can and will be used against you in a court of law.

Last year, for example, an Ottawa court heard that a civil servant had started a clandestine affair with an old friend she reconnected with through Facebook during a messy custody battle involving three kids.

In a Vancouver courtroom last month, defendants in a personal injury case produced photos from the plaintiff's Facebook profile showing that while Myla Bagasbas was seeking $40,000 in damages for pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment after a car accident, she was still able to kayak, hike and bike post-accident.

"Facebook will be seen as a gold mine for evidence in court cases," said Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in ethics, law and technology at the University of Ottawa.

But it will also challenge the courts to further define the notion of personal privacy. In a precedent-setting case this year, a Toronto judge ordered that a man suing for physical injury in a car accident be cross-examined on the contents of his private Facebook profile. Justice David Brown of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice overturned a previous court decision that called the defendant's request to look for incriminating evidence a "fishing expedition."

The very nature of Facebook is to share personal information with others, Brown wrote, and is likely to contain relevant information about how the plaintiff, John Leduc, had led his life since the accident. But if Leduc's profile is private with restricted access, is that considered an invasion of privacy?

"The courts sometimes don't get it," Kerr said. "The tendency in judicial opinion and popular thinking is that once something is out in the public, there's no such thing as privacy anymore. But that can't be right because we all have curtains."

For Facebook users, those curtains are our privacy settings. If our home is our castle, Facebook should also be considered a walled domain, Kerr said.

For example, while a member may post pictures from a beer bash the night before, that doesn't mean they would take the same pictures to show off to their boss the next day, Kerr explained.

Likewise, in Murphy versus Perger, a judge ordered that the plaintiff, who was suing for claims of personal injury and loss of enjoyment of life after a car accident, produce copies of her Facebook pages showing photos of her engaging in social activities. In her judgment, Ontario Superior Court Justice Helen Rady wrote "The plaintiff could not have a serious expectation of privacy given that 366 people have been granted access to the private site."

But having 366 Facebook friends doesn't entitle the rest of the world to view personal information meant only for certain eyes, said Avner Levin, director of the Privacy Institute at Toronto's Ryerson University.

"It's not how many people you share it with, it's who you choose to share the information with," Levin said. "The judge is missing the point. What's important is not how many people are your friends, but who you choose to know you."

While we're able to compartmentalize and separate people in our lives offline by assigning titles to different spheres -- co-workers, neighbours, family -- the online world fails to recognize those distinctions, he added.

It's a habit that spills over in the job hunt as well. Employers admit they rely heavily on information they glean about a candidate from Google searches and networking profile pages. But it's an unfair screening process, Levin said, and attaches more value to people's online identities -- and sometimes third-party information -- than the candidate they meet in real life.

"We need to suppress that tendency to go on Google and look people up. There's already a process of hiring that works for them and has been working for years," Levin said.

While we're more likely to trust a direct source and treat gossip with skepticism in the offline world, the same can't be said of online information.

Pruning online identities and putting a person's best cyber-foot forward are services offered by companies such as DefendMyName, a personal PR service which posts positive information about a client and pushes down negative links in Google. ReputationDefender also destroys libelous, private or outdated content.

"A resume is no longer what you send to your employer," said ReputationDefender CEO Michael Fertik. "More people look at Google as a resume."

But instead of authenticating information found online, people are trusting secondary material and treating Google like God.

"What happens is in a court of law, you have to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. On the Internet though, many decisions are based on lower standards," Fertik said.

But is sanitizing a person's online reputation of unflattering content an infringement of freedom of speech and freedom of expression?

"Only if you believe Google is the best and most accurate source of information," Fertik said. "But I don't think Google is God. I believe Google is a machine."

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