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FINRA Issues Guidance on Social Networking Sites

09 February 2010

The Hogan & Hartson privacy lawyers are counseling clients on the use of social media, as the legal risks are significant -- especially if employees use the shield of anonymity to protect their privacy but make representations on behalf of their employers without disclosing their affiliation.  The FTC and FDA recently have focused on social media.  And on January 25, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), an industry self-regulatory organization, issued Regulatory Notice 10-6, which gives guidance to member companies on the use of blogs and social networking sites to engage in company-sponsored communications with the public. 

The unique nature of social networking sites and the speed and fluidity with which communications can be made to the public have presented challenges in the implementation of existing FINRA rules.  Some recommendations made in the guidance includes:

  • Supervising interactive communications made through social networking sites in a manner reasonably designed to ensure that they do not violate the content requirements of FINRA's communications rules or other securities laws, and instituting policies and procedures for this supervision
  • Instituting a policy prohibiting business communications by employees through social networking sites that are not subject to the company's supervision
  • Requiring employees posting content to social networking sites to undergo training
  • Establishing appropriate usage guidelines for customers and other third parties that are permitted to post on company-sponsored web sites
  • Adopting disclaimers to help ensure that third-party content posted to blogs or social networking sites is not attributed to the company
  • Monitoring third-party posts to mitigate the perception that the company is adopting the content of the post or to assist compliance with the "Good Samaritan" safe harbor for blocking and screening offensive material under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

While FINRA exercises oversight of the securities industry, the recommendations in Notice 10-6 are good advice for any business that is considering communicating or marketing with consumers through social media, whether hosted by the company or on a third-party social networking site such as MySpace or Twitter.  In addition to the recommendations listed here, businesses seeking to enter the social networking space should also institute policies that ensure that its representatives don't deceive consumers and that the content posted complies with all applicable laws and regulations, such as defamation and intellectual property laws.

The fact that FINRA is looking into this issue -- in September 2009, FINRA organized a Social Networking Task Force from which these guidelines were generated -- highlights the importance of social networking as a marketing tool, along with the accompanying risks.  Other industries are also considering these issues; for example, in November 2009 the FDA held a well-attended public hearing about the use of social media as a marketing tool for FDA-regulated entities.  For more information about legal risks that can arise through business use of social networking sites and how to address these risks, check out Hogan & Hartson's recent guidance on the topic.

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