Social Media's Relationship with the Law Redefined

By Stefanie WheelerFOXBusiness

As society continues its transition into an increasingly digital world, the relationship between social media and law enforcement is slowly being redefined, and concerns of free speech are coming to light.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have hundreds of millions of active monthly users, so it’s no surprise law enforcement agencies have turned to the Internet as a valuable resource.  In fact, 86% of agencies said they use various online platforms specifically for criminal investigation, according to a 2013 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

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Just this week, an Arkansas high school student was charged with two felonies after he made violent threats against his school on social media, and an Illinois woman was ticketed for implying on Facebook she used a dog park without a permit, though the ticket was later rescinded.

These cases, along with many others, have raised questions about whether law enforcement has the authority to use these online platforms to hold individuals accountable.

Lawyer Heather Hansen said you have “no reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to your public posts, and even your private posts are subject to searches, possibly without your knowledge.” She added all online activity is free game to the authorities, and her advice is to “approach social media as if whatever you do will be viewed as if it is on TV.”

Lee Rowland, American Civil Liberties Union Staff Attorney, agrees online behavior is free game to authorities, but has some concerns about how this method could be responsible for self-censorship.

“We should be concerned when law enforcement is dedicating resource to proactively troll social media for possible evidence of possible crime," she said.

By that she means setting up false accounts and befriending individuals to gain access to their private accounts.

Though Rowland says it’s important to be mindful of what people post online, she says if the public starts to fear these tactics, there could be an effort to self-censor. There’s already proof of a large effort on behalf of Internet users to achieve online anonymity. A 2013 Pew Research Survey showed 86% of people using the web said they’re taking steps to remove or mask their digital footprints.

The law is behind the times according to privacy expert Lisa Sotto who says the relationship between the law and the Internet is “an uncomfortable one right now,” especially given the complexities of having such a global nature of the web. She emphasizes technology is progressing at a much quicker pace than our legal system.

“The law is a dinosaur, it hasn’t caught up with the times yet, but it will,” Sotto said.

(Stefanie Wheeler is an Associate Producer for “Cavuto.” You can follow her on twitter @StefanieWheeler)   

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