When you find yourself comfortably seated behind your screen, it is easy to forget that the law also applies on the internet and even more distinctively on social networks. If freedom of expression is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human and Civic Rights, the fact remains that all this is framed by law, on the web as elsewhere. It is sometimes literally staggering to read certain comments that are defamatory, insulting or calls for hatred. We briefly summarize here below some concepts to make you aware of your responsibilities as a content producer, in relation to the elements you post, but also to the comments of third parties under your publication responsibilities.
Copyright and plagiarism
Copyright is an inalienable right, directly related to intellectual property. On the web as elsewhere, the content posted does indeed belong to its author. Plagiarism is therefore a crime, which consists in “giving as one’s own what one has been taken from the work of another”. It is therefore quite possible to be prosecuted if you copy a text without citing its sources or if you steal images without authorization from their authors, even by modifying them to blur there origins. In general, in order to avoid any problem, it is recommended to go through the “share” function on social networks from the source page rather than copying and pasting a text and addressing the author directly when one wishes to use all or part of his work. When it comes to illustrating an article, there are many royalty-free image databases, free or paid, as well as the Creative Commons. There is therefore no valid reason or excuse to appropriate any content.
The most common offenses
In addition to plagiarism, the most common offenses observed on social networks are defamation, slander, insult, invasion of privacy and incitement to hatred or discrimination. For everyone, defamation, slander and insult may seem complex to differentiate, when they are indeed distinct, as are their consequences. In all cases, the offenses as their penalties are aggravated by their public character. So be very careful with your actions on the web and social media!
Insult is the act of making or writing insulting remarks against a person or a group of people. If the remarks are racist, this can constitute an aggravating factor, racial insult being generally more heavily condemned by the justice system. The subject of any insult may easily file a complaint as the process to do so is very straightforward.
Defamation consists of making demeaning or shocking remarks about one or more clearly identified or easily identifiable person(s). If you are able to prove that your statements are accurate (notion of truth), you will only be able to claim acquittal if they do not fall under the invasion of privacy laws (see below). Beware therefore: as not all truths are good to say!
Calumny, on the other hand, unlike defamation, is based on false elements. It therefore amounts to spreading false information with knowledge of their untrue nature in order to harm the victim. In criminal law, you can be prosecuted for slanderous denunciation if the remarks made are likely to lead to sanctions against the person concerned. The penalty incurred is then greater than those risked for defamation.
Invasion of privacy consists of disseminating comments made by a third party in a private or confidential setting or transmitting images of a person without their consent, whilst they were in a private place, including if the image in question is hijacked. All publications relating to a person’s health, their place of residence or the places that they frequent, their religious, romantic or sexual life, as well as their philosophical or political convictions, may also constitute invasions of privacy.
Finally, the call or incitement to hatred, violence or discrimination consists in making remarks pushing to mistreat certain people according to their origin, their religion, their handicap, their gender or their sexual orientation. In some countries, such as Finland, incitement to hatred is a crime. In others, like France, it is a misdemeanour. Either way, you can be prosecuted and convicted for such misdeed.
There are of course other types of offences, such as identity theft, which consists of building a profile in the name of someone else, the fact of uttering threats or incitement to suicide which is unfortunately more and more prevalent among young generations. Sharing content falling under the aforementioned offences, even if you are not the author, can lead to a charge for “complicity”, which can lead to a penalty similar to that incurred by the author himself!
What about third-party comments
Since June the 16th, 2015, following a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, all bloggers are responsible for comments left on their blog, in particular because most blogs do not allow messages to be withdrawal by users after publication, the owner of the blog is therefore the only one who can actually delete them. When it comes to social networks, legislation varies widely internationally. It should be noted that justice seems to make a difference between publications open to all (Public status) and restricted publications, for example those accessible only to your circle of friends. The moderation and deletion of comments infringing the law can be carried out prior to their publication, provided that this parameter has been programmed previously. If you have not done so, you become responsible for the comment posted at the time you become aware of their presence and must therefore remove them as soon as possible. Moderation of comments should be considered mandatory, at the very least on your public posts, as the publisher is generally responsible for all content on their site and social media pages have similar legal dispositions.
Most cases that end up in court could be avoided if internet users exercised caution and restraint. Remember that any good journalistic work must be based on thorough research and the dissemination of objective, verified and truthful information.
Originally written in French by Marie Majkowiez on the 26th of April, 2022.
Translated into English by Christian Frampton.