A personal injury case in Suffolk County recently became New York’s testing ground for the disclosure of information posted on Facebook and MySpace. In Romano v. Steelcase Inc., the defendant demanded access to the private portions of the plaintiff’s social networking sites, including deleted information. The defendant contended the information would refute plaintiff’s claims about the extent of her injuries. The plaintiff opposed the defendant’s request on the ground the disclosure would violate her right to privacy.
Justice Jeffrey Arlen Spinner agreed with the defendant and granted the discovery motion. Finding no New York precedent on this issue, the court cited case law from Colorado and Canada to support its decision. In rejecting the plaintiff’s privacy claims, Justice Spinner observed that the very purpose of social networking sites is to share “personal information” with others. Therefore, since the plaintiff “knew that her information may become publicly available, she cannot now claim that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
The court based its decision largely on the fact that the plaintiff voluntarily posted the information she was seeking to protect. As most social networkers know, however, any of your “Friends” can post information about you (or photos of you) on their pages and there’s not much you can do to stop them. Even if you convince them to remove the information, the history and deleted files are likely to be available. It will be interesting to see how courts will treat the disclosure of information posted by third-parties and how privacy arguments will fare in those cases.
Romano v. Steelcase serves as yet another cautionary tale about posting information on the Internet. Even if you delete a compromising photograph or status update, it could be disclosed to your adversary in litigation and used as evidence against you in a lawsuit. While Facebook members and Internet commenters have spent countless hours and immeasurable bandwidth debating Facebook’s privacy settings, in many ways that entire controversy is a red herring. Nothing you post on a social networking site is truly private.