Legal aspects of oversharing

I’m admittedly oversensitive about oversharing, probably because the anticipation and avoidance of it costs so much effort. In spite of universal recognition of and appreciation for the Golden Rule—which, when applied consistently, prevents myriad faux pas—pride, anger, and the speed of unedited blogging occasionally leave prudence and honor in the dust.

To be specific, I cringe whenever I see that someone has posted online a complete copy of email correspondence that, no matter how interesting to the reader or flattering of the sender, was obviously a personal message from sender to recipient.

Of course, plenty of email messages sent en masse do not qualify as private correspondence, even though the sender might not want them to be made public. Nor are form letters private correspondence. However, when a reproduced email message refers to details unique to a discussion between just two individuals, it’s easy to recognize that the message was intended to be personal. I can’t be the only one who’s squeamish about encountering these infringements of other people’s privacy in my RSS feed.

Aside from the Golden Rule, there are two equally important legal reasons for recognizing and respecting both the ownership and the privacy of email.

Copyright

The author of the email is the owner of the message; the recipient is not. The person who writes the email message retains the copyright even after the email is sent.

Privacy

Furthermore, the sender of email often has a reasonable expectation of privacy that is protected by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Because many workers have been taught that, with adequate written policies in place, their employers can monitor their company email, those same workers have forgotten that outside their workplace, privacy is still the default expectation. Only by issuing email usage policies do employers overcome the usual expectations of privacy.

When can private email correspondence be made public?

One way to ensure the legality of publishing someone’s email message on a blog is to obtain the sender’s permission before posting. It’s such a simple formality, yet it’s often forgotten. When permission is granted, the fastidious thing to do is acknowledge it along with the reproduced correspondence. Problem solved.

Email that is evidence of a crime falls into a special category. Subpoenas can compel the email sender and recipient to relinquish their private digital files.

Email messages sent to government officials can become part of the public record, available on request in compliance with sunshine (open records) laws.

Maybe overeager recipients overlook ethical considerations when they overshare, because it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Certainly there’s no danger that the individual who fails to take the effort to summarize accurately instead of copying and pasting will ever be held accountable. But is it worth the risk that I’m the only overscrupulous reader who’ll notice a breach of what is not simply etiquette but law?

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