What starts as a harmless or helpful recommendation of a product or service on a social media platform could end up creating legal obligations and liability.
That’s the implication of provisions within the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), designed to protect consumers from exploitative practices and ensure that they get a good deal, which can be extended to apply to social networks. But does this go too far? It’s open to interpretation, is the view of Ashika Kalyan, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Business Connexion.
“Recent cases involving high-profile celebrities have demonstrated quite clearly that what you say in cyberspace can and will bite you,” she notes. “That is in quite stark contrast to the perceived safety of internet isolation.”
That the CPA should extend its provisions as they apply to marketing to the web is quite natural, Kalyan continues, since the internet and social media platforms are becoming as much a part of daily life as newspapers are. “Probably the major difference is that social media upends the ‘one to many’ communication channel by allowing a direct and instant feedback loop. It also creates an army of people who are potentially marketers, but in an informal and unregulated sense.”
The ability for any individual to garner an audience, sometimes of thousands, potentially creates considerable grey areas; the individuals representing a company often comment and advocate the services of their organisation in their private capacity. They also recommend the services of companies with which they have no affiliation whatsoever, outside of being a customer of that organisation.
A top-line look at the CPA reveals that consumers have the right to fair and responsible marketing, fair and honest dealing and fair value, good quality and safety. Crucially, it also states that the consumer has the right to refuse, require another to discontinue and pre-emptively block any marketing efforts.
“As more companies turn to Facebook and Twitter, it is a relatively straightforward issue of establishing a policy which takes into account these provisions and requirements and tasking employees with the responsibility of compliance with that policy,” Kalyan continues.
Where she sees issues potentially arising is in the case of employees recommending the services of the company for which they work, but without a specific mandate to do so. “This is a quite natural thing for people to do. Most of us are proud of the organisations we represent and won’t hesitate to recommend, draw attention to and encourage others to buy the products or services of our employer.”
This is perhaps the crux of the issue and one which, until it is tested before courts, remains open to interpretation. “There are questions which need to be considered. If liability arises, it would seem unlikely that it could be pinned on the company concerned, while at the same time, it seems unfair to punish the individual,” Kalyan says.
What she believes is clear, however, is that it is necessary for companies and individuals to become more aware of their responsibilities when using social media platforms. “What is said on the internet can’t be unsaid. Real-world rules, laws and regulations still apply, whether in terms of simple good manners or in terms of exposing oneself or one’s company to liability.”