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Anonymous bloggers under pressure to delete accounts

A number of prominent anonymous police bloggers and tweeters have recently closed down and deleted their social media accounts after coming under pressure from their forces. The move brings to the fore the increasingly common dilemma employers face with social media about balancing free speech and workplace confidentiality.

The Association of Chief Police Officers issued guidance acknowledging the many benefits of social media, including more effective communication with communities, but outlined the risks to personal and organisational security and reputations. It warned officers against making 'adverse comment regarding the police force, colleagues or senior managers or the police service in general' via social media.

Most employees have a contractual duty of confidentiality to their employer and critical blogs that damage reputations are likely to be in breach of this. Even so, it's well worth developing separate guidance on use blogs, social networking sites, and tweets that makes it clear that employees may face disciplinary action if they post comments that might damage the organisation's reputation.

A sense of proportionality is key. While employers may be upset about them, anonymous comments may not be as damaging as first perceived. For example, some commentators thought that the unofficial police tweets gave the public a valuable grassroots view of the nature of policing that was actually helpful to the service. Other employers may consider any publicity to be good, and see their employees as valuable outlets for promoting their brand.

It's difficult for employers to take action against anonymous bloggers unless they can discover their identity. In serious cases, they may be able to get the website operator to disclose personal data through a court order - but it could be costly. Requiring employees to disclose details of the social media profiles may well be a step too far and be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, not to mention data protection and discrimination legislation.

In the end, it is up to employers to decide what risks social media poses for their organisation, and to develop a policy of appropriate use and behaviour that staff know, understand and accept.

Acas provides advice on Social media, defamation, data protection and privacy, and can help your organisation with Social media and how to develop a policy.

Acas can also visit your organisation to help you find practical solutions to a range of issues related to social networking. Visit Social media - Acas training and support and the Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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