The rise of social media, and the Internet as a whole, has fostered the ability to connect with old friends, professional acquaintances, and distant family members. It also creates the possibility for a whole new world of social media quandaries that could lead to massive lawsuits. Whether its Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or Yelp, users of every major social media website have run into unique legal problems. And it doesn’t always end up pretty for the little guy. Below is a list of ten epic social media Fails that have led to major lawsuits.
Sanctioned Lawyer v. Transparency
Let’s start with Avvo. When the company gave Florida attorney Joe Davis a “3.7 Caution” warning due to the fact that he had been sanctioned by the Florida state bar association, Davis sued the company for “publishing false and misleading information about attorneys” and damaging his reputation. Davis was, in fact, sanctioned, so the Avvo rating is hardly false or misleading, which is why Avvo CEO Mark Britton refuses to back down. “We will not be bullied into censoring important information. Our mission, since day one, has been to provide more information and better guidance for consumers seeking help with legal matters,” he wrote. “By publishing sanction information in particular, we are shining a flashlight in some very dark corners of the legal industry, and some are not going to like that.”
Dentist v. Yelp
Speaking of trying to avoid bad press, a New York judge ruled this month that a dentist did not have the right to sue Yelp, the social networking and community rating website, for providing a forum on which users can post negative and potentially defamatory reviews. The dentist, Glenn Reit, claimed that the negative experience of anonymous commenter “Michael S” was false and had a negative effect on his business. Reit also claims that Yelp tried to coerce him into buying advertisements on the site and improperly removed positive reviews about Reit from his page. New York Supreme Court judge Jane Soloman dismissed the complaint under the federal Communications Decency Act. “Congress granted interactive computer services immunity from liability for publishing false or defamatory material so long as the information was provided by another party,” she wrote.
Yelp Reviews v. Ad Buys
There are a number of disgruntled business owners who have sued Yelp, alleging illegal business practices. Christine LaPusky, owner of California’s D’Ames Day Spa has sued the company for engaging in extortion, alleging that a marketing executive removed 13 of 14 positive reviews from the spa’s page after she said she would not buy adspace on the website. And last month, a California veterinary clinic alleged that another marketing executive offered to bury negative reviews in return for a $300 per month ad buy. “This suit, like the other, is without merit, we will fight it aggressively and we believe we will win,” wrote Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman on the company’s blog. So far, no business owner has been able to prove that Yelp did, in fact, engage in extortion.
“Like” v. Dislike
The massive social media website Facebook faces a class action lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court for allegedly misappropriating the names and personal information of minors for a profit. The issue is the website’s “like” buttons, which allow users to indicate entertainment, media, and companies of which they are fond. But Facebook also uses this information to suggest that others “like” something based on their friends’ interests. Plaintiffs say this is illegal and that “the use of the name and/or likeness of the child as an endorsement of the advertiser’s product can increase marketing returns by 400% compared to advertising that does not include an endorsement from the name or likeness of a child,” without even getting the user’s consent. Facebook has maintained that the lawsuit is bogus, saying it “misunderstands the law, its intent and the way Facebook works.”
Face v. “Book”
Pulling a page from the “bold” category, Facebook has launched a trademark lawsuit against Teachbook, a small social networking website for teachers, for using the word “book” in its name. Facebook doesn’t own the word “book” but claims that use of the word in connection to a website that serves a similar purpose and even bills itself as “Facebook for teachers,” violates trademark laws. Facebook likely hopes that the outcome of this lawsuit will inform future lawsuits against websites using the word book. “If others could freely use ‘generic plus BOOK’ marks for online networking services targeted to that particular generic category of individuals,” the complaint reads, “the suffix BOOK could become a generic term for ‘online community/networking services’ or ’social networking services’.”
Facebook v. “Montreal Spammer”:
Don’t mess with Facebook. Because they will probably win and you will be screwed. Montreal-based internet spammer Adam Guerbuez learned this lesson the hard way after using the login information from a couple of fake websites he created to flood Facebook users with spam for porn, drugs, and the ever-notorious “male enhancement pills.” Facebook sued Guerbuez (most known for selling videos of people beating up homeless people) under the CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act and was awarded a whopping $873 million. For David Fincher’s sake, I’m hoping they don’t choose to sue the makers of “The Social Network” too…
Major Corporation v. Pirate Warehouse
These days, having a current and active MySpace is essential for a musician’s success. That’s why many artists likely viewed a recent lawsuit launched by Universal Music Group as a major buzz kill. Universal sued MySpace, the massive social networking website, for allegedly making copyright infringement easy, and turning “MySpace Videos into a vast virtual warehouse for pirated copies of music videos and songs.” Universal filed their complaint immediately after MySpace improved their “fingerprinting technology” to help prevent unauthorized music from being shared on the site. But Universal claimed they didn’t go far enough. The conflict had a unique outcome which is likely to be beneficial for both sides. MySpace created a new entity, MySpace Music, with collaboration from all major music labels and a whopping $120 million investment from Universal parent company News Corp.
Tenant v. Mold
No one wants to get stuck sleeping in a moldy apartment. But it’s likely preferable to being slapped with a $50,000 lawsuit by your landlord. That’s what happened when Chicago resident Amanda Bonnen tweeted last year “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon really thinks it’s okay.” Horizon Group Management, which oversees 1,500 tenants in the Chicago area, said the tweet was “obviously false.”
“We’re a ‘sue first, ask questions later’ kind of organization,” said Horizon’s Jeffrey Michael about the lawsuit. Odd quote aside, it looks like the company’s lawsuit may have been a bizarre form of legal retaliation. After moving out of her apartment in June, Bonnen sued Horizon for refusing to fix the mold problem. Michael said the company uncovered the offending tweet while preparing for the lawsuit and “acted to protect our reputation just as we would for any other related comment made in a public forum.”
Tweeps Shall Overcome v. Police:
At first, communicating with fellow protesters over Twitter sounds like a brilliant way to stick it to the man without the risk of getting caught. Elliott Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger thought this plan had worked out until police knocked down their door and arrested the housemates for “communicating with various protesters, and protest groups…[via] Internet based communications, more commonly known as ‘Twitter’.” The pair used the popular micro blogging forum to inform urban renegades taking part in the Tin Can Comms Collective, which described itself as “collection of communication rebels,” during the G20 conference in Pittsburgh, PA last year. For Madison, the full-time social worker with no criminal record, the series of tweets cost $30,000 in bail money. Wallschlaeger had to post $5,000 for bail.
Tea Party v. Common Sense
On April 16, 2009, Daniel Knight Hayden, a 54-year old Oklahoma City resident passionate about tax law became the first person arrested for tweeting. At a tax-day protest the day earlier, Hayden had posted threatening tweets including “START THE KILLING NOW!” and “Locked AND loaded for the Oklahoma State Capitol. Let’s see what happens.” The FBI charged Hayden with making interstate threats, the same charge he’d receive if he had made death threats in a fax transaction. A federal court later sentenced Hayden to eight months in prison for the offending tweet.