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Social Media Privacy Laws

Social media can document many intimate details of your life. Those details can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Many laws protect social media users and their privacy.

Creating a social media account almost always requires giving up your basic information. But using social media is about connecting with the world. This experience often involves exposing more about your life through direct messages, public posts, or app tracking.

Unfortunately, this information-sharing process raises the risk of privacy violations. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram could suffer a data breach. Or, companies might use your data for purposes without your consent.

This article discusses social media privacy laws, including the following:

  • The legal obligations of social media companies
  • Right to be forgotten laws
  • Privacy protection for children on social media
  • Social media privacy in the workplace

Public Versus Private Social Media Accounts

You can control who can see your information online. Many social media platforms allow you to choose between sharing your content publicly or privately.

Social media privacy settings often let you hide your content from anyone who isn't on your pre-approved friends or followers list. But even a private account involves risk, and privacy settings are only the start.

You may already take many steps to protect your security online. But users' precautions can't prevent all privacy issues.

Common Privacy Violations on Social Media

Privacy violations may be intentional or accidental. In either case, knowing your legal rights and options can help you contain the damage.

Some privacy risks you may face as a social media user include:

  • Someone sharing your photo without your permission (or after you revoked it)
  • Someone pretending to be you online
  • Hackers accessing your data on a company's unsecured servers
  • Companies selling your private information and user data to third-party advertisers
  • Companies harvesting data of children without parental knowledge and consent
  • Other users doxing your address or contact information
  • Employers mandating access to your otherwise private social media activity
  • Whether law enforcement can search your social media records without a warrant

The online world of social media changes constantly. Government agencies and lawmakers have tried to keep pace with its ever-increasing presence in daily life.

Consumers often call out privacy issues by bringing cases to court. Lawyers can help resolve individual disputes against social media service providers, other users, and even their employers.

Federal Social Media Laws

A few federal laws touch on social media privacy concerns. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) and The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) are the two laws most often applied to social media.

Other federal privacy laws are not specific to social media. Instead, most of them focus on consumer protections in the context of financial institutions and health insurance. Social media now uses sophisticated data collection tactics, which raise new privacy risks for consumers.

Many other legislative efforts have aimed to improve social media privacy. Still, no comprehensive national social media privacy laws exist yet.

Regulatory agencies also affect privacy safeguards. For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) intends to expand protections due to new artificial intelligence (AI) cybersecurity concerns.

State Laws Protecting Social Media Privacy

Some states have taken measures to protect social media privacy better. Out of all states, California has historically pioneered the country's digital privacy legislation efforts. The technology industry has a significant presence in the state, particularly in the Silicon Valley area.

More states have adopted laws like those in California. These states include Virginia, Colorado, and Texas, among many others.

These laws usually fall into the following categories:

  • Laws requiring companies to put data security measures in place
  • Laws that set liability and criminal punishment for hacking
  • Laws that require companies to notify users about data breaches

For example, California law requires anyone doing business in California to notify consumers of a data breach in the "most expedient time possible."

A state's attorney general typically can hold social media companies accountable for violating privacy laws. Though the FTC is the federal agency responsible for enforcement on a national scale, it does not enforce state-specific laws.

Foreign Data Privacy Laws

There is no U.S. equivalent to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This law concerns consumer data collection, data storage, and more. It applies to any company that handles personal data of EU residents, even if neither party is physically present in the EU.

This law does not protect U.S. residents directly. Yet, many social media companies operate internationally, spanning both EU and U.S. markets. This foreign law has affected how companies treat user data — often for users in all countries. It acts as a modern standard for consumer privacy.

Right to Be Forgotten: Can I Erase My Social Media Data?

U.S. laws do not create a blanket protection that allows you to delete all your online information. You may delete your social media account publicly, but the company may keep certain records.

The EU's GDPR includes a "right to be forgotten" law. People and corporations can request deletion of their information from some internet sites. The rationale behind these laws is that people should be safe from irrelevant or outdated information.

The U.S. doesn't have a federal right to be forgotten law. But such laws overseas still affect U.S.-based companies that operate internationally.

State laws may give you the right to delete some personal data online. For example, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) requires companies to delete user data as requested. But there are exceptions, and this law only applies to California residents.

Protecting Privacy from Social Media Companies

You may have wondered what the company knows about you if you use social media regularly. Perhaps you log in with biometric data, such as a face ID scan. You may see ads on the website for a product you discussed privately. You might have linked your credit card to access premium features.

Understanding how the company collects, uses, and stores sensitive information is vital for your privacy.

Much of the relationship between users and a social media platform comes from the company's:

  • Privacy policies
  • Marketing materials
  • Standards and practices

Social media users agree to broad terms and conditions when they join platforms. Yet, companies often update their user agreements. Also, users don't always read them or understand what they mean. Users might assume they can expect to have privacy regardless. Their expectations might not match the reality.

Company Misuse of Social Media Data

Social media security practices must keep your information safe. Consumer data may get breached when a social media company fails to meet its standards and practices.

The high-profile data breach involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is an example of a violation. Investigators found that Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to access millions of users' data. These Facebook users didn't agree to give their data to this third party for political purposes.

Many U.S. jurisdictions have some version of data breach notice laws requiring companies to reveal disclosures of information. These laws ensure companies like Facebook can be subject to fines if they don't inform consumers of these breaches.

Limited Liability for Users' Privacy Violations

Social media companies are accountable for data breaches and data misuse. Yet, Section 230 of the CDA limits their liability. This law protects a company against lawsuits for content that users share on its platform. Companies must moderate content in some ways, but they don't have to enforce strict censorship on their platforms.

The company is likely not liable if someone else shares private information about you on social media. Instead, the person who posted it may be liable for violating your privacy. Your legal options would depend on the nature of the exposed information.

Relationships Among Social Media Users

Much of social media's appeal is interaction with other users. Users can share feelings, thoughts, and information in an accessible real-time forum.

But this sharing of information makes social media ripe for exploiting privacy rights. Many scams and identity theft involve using information from social media accounts.

Revenge Porn Laws

There are state laws that criminalize revenge porn. This is the online posting of sexually explicit videos or photos without the consent of the subject. It usually includes the intent to embarrass or humiliate them. Such content involving minors is a federal crime.

Social media giants have also shown concern about users who invade others' privacy on their platforms. They have rules and procedures addressing unauthorized content. Twitter bans posting or sharing intimate photos or videos of someone produced or distributed without their consent.

Facebook uses "photo-matching" technologies for photos identified as shared non-consensually. The parent company, Meta, also uses a controversial program that involves users sending intimate photos to Facebook's safety department. Meta claims this process stops anyone from uploading the pictures to the site.

Protection for Children on Social Media

COPPA is the federal law on the disclosure of online data of children under 13. This law does not ban young children from using social media altogether. It only restricts companies' data practices for child users.

Sites that target children can't collect personal information about a child without parental consent. Companies must also give written notice of the site's disclosure practices. This law applies to social media as well as other websites and apps.

Parental Violations of Privacy

Parents are often in a supervisory role to protect children on social networks. They may set parental controls to help watch their child's communications.

But in some cases, parents can infringe on their children's privacy. They might post photos of their children online or divulge their matters in a blog. There are no federal social media rights for children in these situations.

Age Restrictions and Parental Consent Laws

Some states are trying to create more social media laws for children. Many such laws focus on a broader scope than data collection and privacy. They need parental consent for children's social media use.

States like Arkansas, Texas, and Florida have pursued such laws. Courts have pushed back against them based on children's First Amendment rights.

Social Media Privacy Laws in the Workplace

Employers and employees have a unique relationship with social media privacy. Employers often want to ensure their employees' social media use does not threaten the business' public image or customer data. Employees have an interest in setting boundaries between work and their private lives.

These different perspectives cause a legitimate concern for privacy violations and censorship. Companies can create social media policies for employees to follow, but there are limits under the law.

Can Employers Force Me to Reveal Social Media Details?

The answer is usually no. Many laws protect employees' rights to privacy, including online. For example, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) protects workers against employers' digital prying.

Generally, state laws bar employers from the following actions:

  • Requiring or requesting user name, account passwords, or login credentials for job applicant/employee's personal social media accounts
  • Requiring an employee to add another employee, manager, or administrator to the friends or contact list of their social media account
  • Requesting that employees change privacy settings

Employers and recruiters often use social media to research potential employees. Many laws protect the privacy of job applicants and current employees.

Social Media Privacy Concerns? Consult an Attorney

Social media law is constantly evolving. Your privacy rights and protections may change as technology and political factors shift.

Get clear and concise information from a skilled attorney who understands the law and how to assert your privacy rights. Contact an internet and technology attorney today to talk about your concerns.

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