Facebook postings continue to get subpoenaed in ever more novel ways. Now a very humorous legal precedent came down, of all places, in the Tax Court of Canada.
Someone got nailed for underpayment of taxes after lying in court about whether he posted the truth on Facebook.
Like many tax-related lawsuits, the details get pretty complex, so we’ll quote judiciously. The Honorable Judge Patrick J. Boyle might have stifled at least one chuckle while writing his judgment on an appeal called Shonn’s Makeovers & Spa, Appellant, versus the Minister of National Revenue, Respondent:
Both surprisingly, and perhaps as a true sign of our times, this ends up turning on his Facebook status. Unfortunately, such is the sad state of affairs of this file as presented by all parties and witnesses.
Lie to tax authorities at your own peril, especially when you lack documentation, because computers compare everybody’s tax filings to one another. If you say you’re employed by a company that says you’re a contractor, the computer cranks out letters to both parties, asking you for proof.
Once Ottawa hairdresser William Hall received the first such letter from Canada’s tax authority — it usually takes a series of communiques before a dispute like this gets into a court room — that should have been his clue to do at least one, but preferably all, of the following:
1. Show the letter to an accountant and ask for advice.
2. Have a chat with the proprietors of the salon he worked at, and if that conversation doesn’t go smoothly start looking for vacant seats at other beauty parlors.
3. Re-evaluate the content of his Facebook profile, and self-censor accordingly.
4. Adjust the privacy settings on his Facebook profile so that the salon owners, tax authorities and other members of the legal community couldn’t see the description of his employment.
5. Get wise to the fact that courts and law enforcement can subpoena the right to access even those things that we designate as privacy protected.
This lawsuit would never have happened if he did item one. Two could have minimized the damage, and motivated him to do number three. Four and five are things I wish everyone on Facebook would do. Like Judge Boyle states:
The appellant included a printout dated April 2009 of Mr. Hall’s Facebook info page.
Hall’s Facebook profile contained honest and accurate information about himself, including the nature of his employment. Then he told the court room that the bit being self-employed was a lie. You don’t need a law degree to red flag that!
Then Hall said that people lie on Facebook all the time. Unfortunately, there’s some truth to that. But the kinds of lies that show up on profiles tend to follow certain patterns. Like a singleton’s photo might not have a caption saying that the picture isn’t current. Or a player might not have filled out the relationship status field. Or someone might exaggerate about his own brawn, brains or bucks.
Hall’s lame excuse was that he lied about self-employment out of concern for his privacy. He should have just clicked on the upper right-hand corner of his Facebook screen.
If people don’t learn to use the privacy settings responsibly, will there come a day when all lawsuits include Facebook postings as evidence? What can the social network do to make privacy settings more user friendly and get everyone to use them?