News

Facebook, Twitter and the law

ARI JACOBS, Staff Writer

Since 2005, the advent of social media has resulted in profound ramifications for legal systems and legislative bodies around the world, says University of East Anglia professor of Internet and media law Dr. Daithí Mac Síthigh.

Hailing from England, Síthigh visited Beloit College last Tuesday to discuss how the law encompasses social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. The departments of international relations, computer science, and legal studies hosted the event.

Síthigh began the lecture by compartmentalizing the relationship between law and media into five categories: regulation of the Internet, 21st century Internet, freedom of speech, privacy of data protection and intermediaries and regulation. The unique relationship between legal systems and social media, as described by these five categories, is due in part by the Internet users’ sense of laissez-faire freedom from the law.

“You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear,” once said John Perry Barlow to legislators in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Síthigh, quoting this passage, cited it as an example of intense anti-regulation and freewheeling sentiments among Internet users. The difficulty with regulating the Internet is that the services it provides are “offshore,” meaning that it is unclear if a legal entity has jurisdiction over information on web pages.
Nonetheless, Síthigh notes that governments have in fact become intermediaries between service providers and users on the Internet. Tweets involving Holocaust denial, for example, are invisible to Internet users in France where laws stringently forbid such language, but are visible to users in the U.S. Furthermore, this type of regulation has challenged putatively known notions of freedom of speech. In a court case known as the “Twitter joke trial” in England, a man was convicted and fined a sum of £3,000 for tweeting a facetious airport bomb threat to a younger woman, which was caught by the working staff.
Cases like these will continue to surface as the Internet becomes more mobile through cellular technology. The “pervasive Internet,” as Síthigh calls it, is virtually everywhere.  In 2010, there were 80 mobile cellular telephone subscriptions per 100 people. At the same time, adult Internet users have increased social media activity from 8 percent in 2005 to 65 percent in 2011, catalyzed by the compatibility of the phone with social media. According to Síthigh, this trend “has become a mass concern for the law.”

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