Social media is undoubtedly a valuable and prevalent tool in the education sector, connecting students and teachers globally. With the use of technology and social media becoming ever more prevalent in the education sector, and the recent announcement that Dubai Police have already closed around 10,000 social media accounts involved in cybercrimes since the start of 2017 as part of a campaign to raise awareness of cybercrime, this article explores some of the key legal issues for education institutions to consider in relation to social media.

How can the misuse of social media become a legal issue?

There is no specific regulation of the use of social media in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, misuse of social media can give rise to a number of legal issues. For example:

  • the UAE has wide reaching defamation laws which could be triggered where a social media post exposes a person to public contempt or hatred, even where such a statement is true;
  • posting photographs or pictures without the consent of the subject could amount to breach of the UAE's Constitutional right to privacy. This particularly needs to be considered when, for example, posting promotional pictures on social media which include images of children;
  • the Anti-Discrimination Law contains broad provisions which could be triggered where posts of a religious nature are made on social media. While the Anti-Discrimination Law is primarily aimed at preventing religious extremism, its terms are drafted fairly widely and include, for example, disparaging any of the "heavily religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism";
  • disclosing confidential information obtained during the course of employment amounts to a criminal offence.

How can education institutions use social media safely?

To reduce the risk of legal issues arising, education institutions should consider designating a particular member of staff to be responsible for its official social media pages.

The designated member of staff should be properly trained and have clear guidelines on what can and cannot be posted using social media

Express written consent should be obtained from parents before images of their children are posted on social media and similar consent should be obtained from staff.

Some education institutions will encourage staff to use social media as a business development tool and to regularly post about the institution's achievements and events. Clear guidelines should be communicated to staff about the contents of such posts and the potential implications where such guidelines are breached.

Can an education institution employer be responsible for social media posts made by its employees?

Employers may be vicariously liable for conduct of their employees, including for offences committed using social media.

Furthermore, the Anti-Discrimination Law holds managers and representative of a corporate body liable to a criminal offence where the employee commits a crime under the Anti-Discrimination Law in the name of the employer.

Preventing misuse of social media by staff is therefore a critical issue for employers.

Can an education institution employer take action where an employee misuses social media outside of working hours?

Generally speaking, an employer can only take disciplinary action for conduct which relates to the employee's work.

Social media posts made outside of working hours and using an employee's personal social media account and device will not necessarily be connected to the employee's work.

However, clearly posts made by employees could cause a detrimental impact to an education institution, particularly where the post relates (or is in any way connected) to the school, a colleague or a student.

Education institutions should make clear in their social media policy the circumstances in which personal use of social media may become a disciplinary matter.

Can an education institution employer monitor an employee's use of social media?

An employer does not have an unfettered right to monitor its employees' use of social media, particularly where such use occurs outside of the workplace and using personal devices, for example.

The extent to which an employee's use of social media will be monitored during working hours should be clearly set out in a company policy and an employee's express written consent to such monitoring should be obtained.

How should education institution employers manage the use of social media by employees?

Having a robust social media policy is key. Amongst other things, an effective social media policy should:

  • Clearly define appropriate and inappropriate uses of social media both during and outside of working hours.
  • Make clear that posts which, for example, contravene UAE law, disparage religion or the UAE generally or are abusive will not be tolerated in any circumstances.
  • Provide any requirements or guidelines regarding personal social media pages – for example, are employees able to say that they are employed by the school? Are there certain posts that they should refrain from posting, "liking" or commenting on (for example, religious or politically motivated posts).
  • Clearly explain the circumstances in which personal use of social media may become a disciplinary issue.
  • Explain the implications of misusing social media – both from an employment perspective and in terms of other legal implications.

Of course, it is not enough to simply have a social media policy. The policy must be regularly brought to the attention of employees and proactively enforced in the event of a breach.

Employees should receive regular training on appropriate uses of social media and be warned of the consequences of misuse.

How should education institution employers manage the use of social media by students?

Informing is as critical when it comes to an education institution's students as it is for its employees.

Acceptable conduct on social media differs significantly between jurisdictions. Ex-patriate students may find that conduct that was acceptable in their home country is in fact a criminal offence under UAE law and will not necessarily be familiar with the relatively severe implications of misusing social media in the UAE.

Students should therefore be informed of the dangers of misusing social media, both from a legal and personal perspective. Clear guidelines should be regularly communicated and appropriate action should be taken where such guidelines are breached.

Conclusion

As the use of social media in the education sector becomes ever more prevalent, and with the prevention of cybercrimes firmly on the radar of the UAE authorities, this is a timely reminder to education institutions to review their social media policies and the way in which they manage the use of social media by their employees and students.