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Most of us think of Facebook as a positive, fairly innocuous, tool for social engagement and peer-to-peer networking. But courts and lawmakers are increasingly seeing the potential of this platform for issuing legal summons where no other avenue of communication is viable or even possible.
“There are people who exist only online,” Joseph Demarco, co-chair of the American Bar Association’s criminal justice cyber crime committee, told Bloomberg.com. It is these kinds of online-only individuals – itinerant workers who move between jobs and countries and seldom retain a fixed address for any meaningful period of time – that the justice system often tries, unsuccessfully, to find.
While a number of countries insist that delivery of summons must still be performed in person, the trend that’s emerging seems to legitimise legal online delivery where the in-your-hand version just isn’t forthcoming. In a recent debt recovery case in Australia, two friends who had defaulted on a six-figure loan, moved houses and changed jobs but, predictably, retained their Facebook pages. Once the court was satisfied that all other methods to contact them had been unsuccessful, and that the debtors used their Facebook accounts on a regular basis, it allowed official summons to be served online.
Recently in New Zealand, a court approved an application for a Facebook summons for a man who allegedly took hundreds of thousands of dollars in company money. According to the New Zealand Press Association, “Justice Gendall did not bat an eyelid in the court room when approving the order after being assured that newspaper adverts could not be effectively targeted.”
Often, however, it’s less a matter of shady debtors trying to avoid accepting legal notices because they’re unable to repay their lines of credit and more about adapting the law’s relevance to the nature of the communication in the modern age.
In March this year, Bloomberg reports, a British court allowed a lawyer to serve a woman solely through her Facebook account after it was shown that all other means of communication – phone calls, visits, faxes – had failed to produce any results. Within minutes of serving the Facebook notice, the debtor had responded and the case moved ahead.
Is it an invasion of privacy? Probably, but is it really any different to an officer of the court stepping on to your front door and ringing the doorbell? As a kind of online home for many users, Facebook is a powerful tool for condensing the limitations of physical geography into a single online location hub. It is also very much part of the risk you take by having a social media profile in the first place. Despite the assurances of Facebook’s privacy settings, when you put yourself online, you’re creating tracks and avenues for both outgoing and incoming lines of information – and these all have concomitant implications.
In countries where there’s a precedent for it, Facebook summonses seem to require the explicit consent of the courts on a case-by-case basis, and seem only to be successful where traditional methods of serving summonses have been patently unsuccessful. You could, of course, choose to opt out of the social-media machine completely, but then you risk being a digital hermit in a digital age, which has its own set of consequences.