Small Business Owners Unaware of New Hazards of Social Networking

Michael Essany Headshot by Michael Essany on June 1, 2011
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The apparent simplicity of social media belies the little-considered hazards that frequently imperil — often without just cause — the companies that have largely come to depend on social networking sites for marketing, customer relations, and survival.

Corynne McSherry, Intellectual Property Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — a non-profit digital rights advocacy and legal organization — recently spoke with the Intuit Small Business Blog regarding the social media-related challenges that can — and seemingly do without warning — spark serious and substantial headaches for small business owners.

“Social networking tools can be a fantastic way to market your company,” McSherry contends. “However, when you use third-party service providers, you may make yourself dependent on that provider, with little recourse if the provider decides to end the relationship. If Facebook decides to take down your page due to a copyright, trademark, or terms of service complaint, can you have it restored? Maybe yes, maybe no, depending on what led to the takedown and your ability to get the issue resolved. In the meantime, your business may be affected.”

A DMCA Dilemma

McSherry, of course, is speaking to the larger issue of DMCA takedown abuse, about which the EFF has been particularly critical. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a United States copyright law that criminalizes technology, services, or actions that circumvent safeguards established to control access to copyrighted works. Simply put, your Twitter account, Facebook page, or website could be pulled offline if you’re on the receiving end of a DMCA takedown — a takedown, for instance, that could be provoked by someone unwittingly posting a link on your company’s Facebook page that leads to stolen content.

“We’ve recently seen the same scenario with music bloggers,” McSherry notes on the EFF blog, “who may have their entire sites taken down as a result of complaints about a few links to music they’re reviewing.”

Incredibly, however, you don’t even have to be directly responsible for the DMCA violation in order to be nefariously impacted by it. “Last year a takedown notice targeting a single site parodying the U.S. Chamber of Commerce resulted in a takedown of the websites of over 300 activist organizations hosted by MayFirst/PeopleLink,” McSherry says.

A New Understanding of Social Media’s Latent Threats

In the relatively short period of time that social networking has been an almost unavoidable aspect of daily life, it has wreaked havoc on countless small businesses, numerous non-profits, and a fair share of major corporations — each of which was rocked by scandal born of social networking. But most of these high-profile cases are unrelated to the specific concerns about which McSherry and her organization are trying to raise awareness.

From insider trading allegations tied to unauthorized tweets to workplace allegations of sexual harassment born of inappropriate Facebook posts, the veritable marketing goldmine that is social media has actually resulted in scores of nightmarish consequences for those who failed to acknowledge the dark side of unbridled social networking in the workplace.

But perhaps the darkest side of all is the fact that your hard work and well-established digital presence could be wiped away in a flash, leaving you and your business without a promotional lifeline and, perhaps, a way to make a living.

So what can — or should — a small business owner do to safeguard against the hazards of social networking that the EFF warns of?

“Try to find service providers,” McSherry advises, “who won’t terminate the relationship without substantial reasons. You might also want to look for a service provider that is committed to protecting privacy of its customers.”

At the end of the day, do the benefits of using social media outweigh any potential risks?

“That’s hard to say,” McSherry says. “Many companies make effective use of social media, and individual companies need to weigh the risks for themselves. What is important is to spend some time thinking the issues through in advance.”

Ultimately, McSherry concludes, the struggles born of contemporary social networking may very well have more to do with basic civil liberties than most realize.

“Social media companies have raised a host of new issues from a civil liberties perspective, because they give individuals, groups, and businesses new tools for speech, while at the same time raising significant privacy concerns,” she says. “All social media users should pay close attention to the practices of the social media companies with which they do business, from speech (will your page be taken down at the slightest whiff of a complaint and is there a process for challenge and restoration?) to privacy (what information about you and your customers is bring recorded and how long is it stored?).”

For more information about the Electronic Frontier Foundation and its work, visit eff.org.

Michael Essany Headshot

Michael Essany is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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