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Why it is illegal to share a screenshot of a private conversation/email

Sharing screenshots has become commonplace on social media and messaging apps. Many ignore it, but sharing a screenshot of a private conversation or an email can get you in big trouble … 

There is no law about the screenshot itself – and it might not be necessary – but rather several different laws depending on the content represented in the image. In the eyes of the law, if shared content is originally available for everyone to see, re-sharing it shouldn’t be a problem – except in the case of copyrighted images. In theory, sharing a screenshot of a photo or newspaper article could get you in trouble. In practice, however, it is unlikely that a newspaper or photographer will sue if you have shared a newspaper article or photo on your Facebook. On a site, however, the bill may be steep… More and more professionals are using bots that scan the web in search of images illegally shared on private sites. In the eyes of the law, however, the real problem may arise when a screenshot discloses a private conversation without the consent of the interlocutor.

In Belgium, everyone has the right to respect for private life and this includes the secrecy of correspondence. The sharing – public or not – of the extract of a private conversation cannot in principle be done without the consent of the interlocutor or interlocutors. If one of the parties has not consented, there may be a breach of the privacy of that person. There is then a risk of being sued and having to pay reparations.

To this is added the General Regulations for the Protection of Personal Data (RGPD) which governs the matter at the level of the European Union, the latter applies in Belgium. In principle, it only covers the sharing of personal data – private discussion included – in a commercial or professional context. However, the European Court of Justice has ruled that the dissemination of personal data on the Internet goes beyond the domestic sphere from the moment the information is available to everyone, therefore an unlimited number of people. It must therefore be deduced that the GDPR also comes into play if the screenshot of a conversation is shared publicly on social networks like Twitter or Facebook.

In practice, it is obviously unusual for the right to the confidentiality of correspondence not to be invoked when an interlocutor shares a screenshot of a common conversation with other people, it is still necessary to be aware. In addition, it is not especially necessary that the injured party is recognizable, because the content of the conversation can also prejudice a third party, undermine honor or the right to non-discrimination linked to private life (comment homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist,…). It is possible to obtain compensation in proportion to the damage caused to you in one way or another.

Let’s say your best friend told you on WhatsApp that he cheated on his partner and you sent a screenshot of the conversation to the person afterward. This situation may seem trivial, but the damage done to your (ex-) friend could get you into legal trouble, because there is an invasion of the privacy of your interlocutor. However, nothing would have legally prevented you from warning your girlfriend by rephrasing , it is the photographic reproduction of the private conversation that is in reality the problem.

The same is true if you insult your boss in a private text message to one of your coworkers. Nothing will stop your boss from firing you if they get a screenshot of that problematic conversation. However, you can sue your colleague for having shared the content of your exchanges without your agreement, and moreover for having drawn you into serious trouble.

In a professional context, it may be prohibited to share information on a contractual basis. Often, the employment contract also includes clauses related to the reputation of the company. Sharing professional emails without the consent of each party can therefore get you into trouble.

There are countless examples of this type and the penalties incurred will be systematically proportional to the harm suffered by the victim. In general, you should therefore be very careful with sharing screenshots.

Note, however, that when it is a tweet, a Facebook message on an open account, or publicly available information, re-sharing the message in theory poses no risk.

Some exceptions

As always, there are exceptions. What if the sharing of a screenshot of a conversation is done for the purpose of obtaining justice in the face of harassment, for example? This is still debated. Indeed, a publicly incriminated person without legal background could potentially file a complaint for slander and defamation.

Jean Herveg is a professor and researcher in digital law at UNamur and a lawyer, according to him, we must think about the strategy to follow to denounce harassment: “ Usually the first advice we give people is to file a police complaint about harassment. Unless we are obviously in the hypothesis of a fight against the law of silence. In which case it is better to seek legal advice to ensure that freedom of expression operates effectively without backfire, ”he says.

In reality, nothing is legally defined, it will always be necessary to navigate between freedom of expression and the protection of privacy. “ The secrecy of correspondence can give way to a higher legitimate interest. There is therefore an assessment to be made. I fully understand why a person would want to post a screenshot for justice, but the question is whether it is the most effective thing to do, ”says Jean Herveg.

Moreover, if the public authorities have already been warned of the misdeeds that we want to denounce, but nothing happens, we must be able to “ shake the coconut palm ”, “to make everyone know what has happened, to that there is pressure from the public, that the authorities get started and recognize the wrong “, explains the lawyer. We then fall into the hypothesis of flagrant injustice to which no one can remedy, “ freedom of expression is also used for that ”, according to him.

An exception remains, however, for public figures. They are not subject to the same degree of protection of their privacy as an average individual, as long as this has an appeal with their public activities. This also applies for the other cases of this article. In cases where sharing screenshots of them feeds into public debate, it is more easily justifiable to do so. But if and only if it fuels the public debate. Defamation remains punishable.

Be that as it may, the reprehensible cases presented in this article are paradoxically highly prevalent in modern uses of social networks and messaging.

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Written by Saif Ali Tai

Saif Ali Tai. What's up, I'm Saif Ali Tai. I'm a software engineer living in India. . I am a fan of technology, entrepreneurship, and programming.

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