Monday, October 25, 2010

Social Media Categorically Discoverable

Hopes of some measure of social media privacy are dwindling, according to cases cited by the Delaware Employment Law Blog. In two cases from other states, Romano v. Steelcase and McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway, courts allowed parties access to social networking materials in the course of litigation. In McMillen, the court went as far as to demand disclosure of user names and passwords, arguing that Pennsylvania does not recognize a "social media privilege." The actual order and opinion can be found here.

Regardless of minor differences in Pennsylvania discovery rules and Washington's rules, this result has to be wrong. The majority of the discovery process is founded upon providing content to the other side in good faith (or else face sanctions). Allowing the other party to obtain direct and unlimited access is akin to allowing a six month pass to an entire warehouse--the scope is inappropriately broad and invasive. There is no need to provide access to hoards of unrelated and private information when the user can provide copies of all relevant posts, pictures, etc.

At least as reported in the McMillen court's order, the fatal flaw in the plaintiff's argument was to ask for too much, a confidentiality privilege. For my non-lawyer friends, privileges, especially absolute privileges, are typically based in a long legislative and common law history and recognized public policy. This means that new privileges are hard to come by. In this case, precedent is largely against the creation of a privilege for social networking materials, as many courts around the country permit access to emails, text messages, and other electronic information. The better argument is to fight the scope and explain the electronic analogy of access to someone's home/warehouse. Just like with physical space, the proper procedure is to ask for content (not access) "related to" x, y, and z. Unless there is evidence the party is responding in bad faith, actual access should not be necessary.

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