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Social media

Information about how to protect privacy when using facebook or other social networks.

What is social media?

Social media is the term used to describe online sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or LinkedIn that encourage people to share personal and private information with others. People become so comfortable using these sites that they sometimes forget that they may be sharing more information about themselves, to a much broader audience than they realise. Increasingly this information is being used by organisations such as:

  • Centrelink
  • employers, and
  • police.

Managing an online profile

People might consider searching for or 'googling' their own personal details online. Start with the basics, like what someone who has the person's card or contact details might begin with, such as their name, employer, or job title. Remember to search both international and Australian sites. Add in relevant details like location, university and published works. And it’s always good for a smile to look at what images get picked up as well.

Google alert is a way of finding out about personal information that has been uploaded. The site will send an email when it finds information on a search engine. The alert system can also be used by others, such as businesses or employers. They can use this method to see if anyone has been venting about them online. If they trace the comments back to the employee that person could be dismissed.

Anti-social media?

Facebook and other social media sites are not friends. They are organisations that are encouraging people to give up their private and personal information for their use. They track browsing patterns and use the information for marketing, or they sell it on to interested groups. Social media sites tap into common instincts to connect and share with friends.

LinkedIn wants to gather profiles to make them available to potential employers, Facebook wants to expand your friends list in order to recruit new members and to allow adds to efficiently target users.

Anyone who uses these social media sites is advised to:

  • look to see if they have a privacy police and read it
  • adjust the privacy settings (they usually default to the minimum), and
  • believe that anything that they post is vulnerable.

Controlling the information

Even if a social media account has been deleted, the information will remain on their servers and may be accessible. A person has a couple of options to minimise risk:

  • imagine trying to impress a future employer and add content that matches that image and include a CV
  • change the security settings to the highest ones available.
  • select the ‘Do Not Track’ option
  • clear the cache whenever signing out (often the sites still track the user as they move around online, even after they have signed out), delete browsing history regularly.
  • cookies are also able to track someone's movements as they move around the net to detect a person's browsing patterns for tips about how to do this see Lifehacker—how to stop everyone tracking you on the web(opens in a new window).

If objectionable personal information is posted

If something is posted that the user objects to they can:

  • contact the site that is hosting the information and ask them to remove it
  • contact the person who uploaded it and ask them to take it down
  • ask Google to block it from search results.

If an employer asks to access an employee's social media

Some employers may ask for an employee's username and password as a condition of employment, so that they can find out about the employee or prospective employee. An employee does not have to provide this information, but a prospective employee may not get the job they are seeking.

What the employee can do about this

Take legal action

If a person wants to take legal action, it will probably be expensive. In a High Court case, Dow Jones v Gutnick, the court ruled that in matters of defamation, the appropriate place to hear the matter was the jurisdiction where the harm occurred. The plaintiff, by limiting his claim to the damage suffered to his reputation in Victoria, was able to use Victorian law.

See summary of this case in Fitzgerald, Brian— "Dow Jones & Co Inc v Gutnick: Negotiating 'American Legal Hegemony` in the Transnational World of Cyberspace" [2003] MULR 27(2) 590(opens in a new window).

Complain to the commissioner

The Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection also provides an avenue for the making of a complaint in instances where a person feels that their privacy has been breached. However, the complaints process is unlikely to have an impact on the fact that the prospective employee was not selected for the role.

More information


Office of the Victorian Information Privacy Commissioner

The Commissioner site has information for government agencies and the general public about rights and responsibilities when accessing and protecting personal information on social media sites such as Facebook or Myspace.

See Office of the Victorian Information Privacy Commissioner—Privacy complaints at the Offce of the Victorian Information Privacy Commissioner(opens in a new window).

The Law Handbook

Fitzroy Legal Service’s Law Handbook has information about the law relating to use of the internet.

See Internet and the law(opens in a new window).

Melbourne University Law Review

Article commenting on a 2003 High Court case that looked at defamation and internet jurisdiction.

See Fitzgerald, Brian— "Dow Jones & Co Inc v Gutnick: Negotiating 'American Legal Hegemony` in the Transnational World of Cyberspace" [2003] MULR 27(2) 590(opens in a new window).

Australian Digital Advertising Alliance

This site was developed by a group of companies that use data gathered from people using the internet to try to accurately target ads that will appeal to the user.

See ADAA—Your online choices—a guide to online behavioural advertising(opens in a new window).


This site has information about how to stop sites tracking a user's internet browsing habits.

See Lifehacker—how to stop everyone tracking you on the web(opens in a new window).

Standing Committee of Attorneys-General

This discussion paper seeks to identify issues, including privacy issues that are associated with unauthorised publication of photographs on the internet. It also looks at the adequacy of existing state and territory laws and makes suggestions for addressing these issues. The paper was published in 2005.

See SCAG—Unauthorised photographs on the internet and ancillary privacy issues(opens in a new window).


Thanks to VLA's Emanuela Milosavljevic, Investigations Officer, Complaints and Statutory Compliance (CaSC) and Naomi Service, Managing Lawyer, CaSC, for their generous assistance with this topic.