Facebook Opens A Legal Pandora's Box

You know when you read something and you think it will be huge, but you're not reading about it anywhere else? I had this happen with Facebook last week. No -- not the algorithm change that got everyone excited, but a different case altogether.

The story comes from Northern Ireland, but the ramifications could be global, as The Irish Times explains how a Belfast teen complained to Facebook that nude pictures of her had been posted with the clear intent of trying to shame her. Her lawyers say she was blackmailed into sending a third party the nude pictures, which were then used on a revenge porn site.

This is a horrible story which sadly happens more often than the law-abiding citizen may think. However, the real issue here is the outcome. Just before the case was to be heard, Facebook made a private settlement for an undisclosed sum. Don't know about you, but that sounds massive to me. It's certainly the first case of its kind in the UK, it is believed.

I've checked this out with a company that is daily seeking to get posts, pictures and videos removed from the web -- particularly from Facebook -- generally for corporate clients. Quite often this involves high-flying individuals at the companies who want libelous comments removed because they are about their private lives.

This case had struck a massive chord with them too. Facebook has a reputation for not being the easiest company to deal with when it comes to seeking redress for salacious posts. The typical defence is that it's just the equivalent of massive pin board that people attach notices to. If there is a threat of hurting someone, that's different, but with the day-to-day pleas to have offensive material removed, it doesn't have the reputation of being the most helpful.

That is what makes the Belfast case so big. Facebook did not explain why it settled. The company I've been talking to suggests, in line with The Irish Times article, that the social giant was holding up its hands rather than defend the indefensible. It had been made fully aware of the photos and proper procedures had been exhausted before they got to within inches of going to court, and decided it was best not to take to the stand.

One can only imagine they were feeling uncomfortable about a failure to act against nude pictures of a female teen who had been blackmailed. Not the classiest of accusations to defend against, is it?

So we have a landmark case. Facebook has taken responsibility for malicious posts that were clearly designed to shame a teenager. It has held up its hands for not immediately removing the offensive material.

The question now is, what next? The online risk management company I was taling to agreed that, as you can probably imagine for yourself, this is opening a Pandora's box for other people who have been targeted by malicious posts.

Anyone who has trouble with particularly malicious posts can now surely say a precedent has been set. OK -- so it's a private agreement, but it would appear that where Facebook has realised it was forewarned but didn't act, it is open to the prospect of settling. 

This is a massive step forwards for the social media giant and the victims of online abuse. One can only imagine they are going to have to get better at acting on requests they feel they can defend themselves against in court. That can only be a good thing for people who would far rather gets posts taken down as soon as possible than drag a US tech giant in to court. 

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