THE UNCHARTED TERRITORY OF DIGITAL LAW

In Business & Technology /

By Alex Hamlyn

Biz & Tech Editor

Facebook offers its users a sense of confidentiality and privacy. Personal messages, private chats and embarassing photos are meant to be just between the user and their friends.

In John Leduc’s case, everything he considered private will soon be public.

Leduc is involved in a lawsuit over a car accident and the defendant’s lawyers claimed his Facebook page should be included as evidence. And the judge on the case agrees, having ordered Leduc to submit the contents of his page.

This groundbreaking ruling is an example of the developing culture of digital law and privacy that first erupted on the Ryerson campus last spring surrounding the case of Chris Avenir.

The then first-year engineering student was accused of cheating for taking part in a Facebook study group that offered solutions and help on chemical engineering assignments.

Though one of his professors originally called for his expulsion, the ensuing media maelstrom and student outcry led the school to rethink its position and Avenir was allowed to stay at Ryerson.

Cases like these, and others constantly peppering the news, will only increase as people’s lives move further online and the disconnect between law and society grows.

“We’re facing a generation gap like we haven’t seen since the 1550s,” says Mark Federman, referring to the societal upheaval of the Renaissance, during which great scientific discoveries shared the world stage with the likes of the Inquisition and witch hunts. He added that everyone needs to be extra cautious while in the midst of such social change.

Federman, an OISE researcher and former member of the Marhall Mcluhan Institute at the University of Toronto, believes that our digital culture increasingly leads us to move our private lives into public view on the internet.

In terms of the ramifications of the Leduc court case, Federman doesn’t see it as precedent setting. He says that courts often ask for documents and evidence of a person’s lifestyle in a lawsuit, so to ask for someone’s Facebook information is extraordinary. How people behave in person and on the Internet is very different though.

“Society is in a state of confusion,” he says, pointing to what many students post on Facebook as a perfect example. “Some of the people in the fogey generation would say, ‘Be careful. Your employer is going to see this.'”

It has been nearly a full school year since Ryerson established Policy 61. Policy 61 is the result of the fallout from the Avenir case, along with the university’s desire to create a more modern guideline for student behaviour online and outside of school.

“We’re still breaking ground,” says Mickey Cirak, Ryerson’s student conduct officer. Cirak took on the position just prior to the 2008 school year and Policy 61’s inception. He says that the policy is up for review in 2011, unless the vice-provost students wishes to do so before then.

Cirak also doesn’t see what has happened in the Leduc court case as having an immediate impact on school policy. “Whatever is in the courts is different [than university policy.]”

While Policy 61 is an example of the gradual adaptation of law to the trends of digital culture, society is still learning to adapt itself.

“We’ve now outed what used to be private and are surprised by our actions,” says Federman.

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