Who ‘owns’ your social graph?

Social media networks

Social media networks

With all the time we spend on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest (the list goes on) our lives have become intertwined in more ways than we think. If we take recent court cases seriously, then soon our own social media connections could be “owned” in the future. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious how important information will be in the future.

Companies that have seen the benefits of using social media could increasingly go after their employees’ connections, especially after a court ruling rejected the claim by Linda Eagle that her former employer Edcomm prevented her from accessing her personal and critical contacts on her LinkedIn account. Doing so, she said, also made her ability to find work more difficult. Most of her claims were rejected. This effectively means that the contacts you garner at work belong to the company.

Eagles’ LinkedIn account password was altered by Edcomm after her departure, and her picture and details were replaced with the details of her successor. Her password was known to a former employee who had helped her update the account while still working there.

“It opens the door for employers to claim ownership of any social account — even personal accounts — because Eagle’s account was created under her own name. It demonstrates there’s a need for people to become much more educated about this,” said Bradley Shear, a lawyer who specializes in social media. This though is not the only example of your employer getting your friends in a divorce.

Following remarks he made on a program in 2010, former CNN television anchor Rick Sanchez was fired. Having been a very early “Twitter-er”, he had amassed a following of some 150 000. A legal fight was on the cards of who owned these followers, but was averted when Sanchez was told he can keep his list as long as he changes his Twitter handle.

In another case, in 2011 a publication named PhoneDog was allowed by a California court to sue former employee Noah Kravitz for the ownership of his Twitter followers. Kravitz has been denied a motion to dismiss the case, which is seen as a strong push for PhoneDog’s case.

In some companies, employees have no privacy rights over emails they compile at work even if they use personal email accounts. Therefore it can be assumed that Facebook and Twitter contacts are the sole property of the company.

There is a lot to consider when thinking about this. Many are saying that a “prenuptial” agreement between employer and employee will have to be made up. What about the contacts you bring into a company? Who do those contacts then belong to? It’s all a very comfortable and progressive marriage, yet the divorce that follows when an employee leaves could get very “Hollywoodesque”. It’s not impossible to think that employees have the ability and resources in such a situation to set themselves up for the future, potentially damaging the business they formerly use to work for.

Tweets and Facebook updates have shown to have a major influence in the US, as recently illustrated by President Barack Obama receiving a spike of 1.1 million “likes” on his Facebook page after the US presidential debate. The promotional value of this is unfathomable, considering that this kind of promotion is basically free, instant and affects a wide audience. Or rather voters in this case. It is therefore understandable, at some level, that businesses will be so adamant and warlike in keeping that information.

So where are we? A massive conflict of interest? What would happen if an employee gathers so many followers that they are responsible for much of a company’s revenue, and then decides to leave? Can a specific monetary value actually be attributed to the followers of a business account and how much is that value? Somewhere, someone is going to lose.

Yet this is an emerging concept in an ever-growing ever-changing and expanding market, and the possibilities are endless. To be honest we are still making up the rules in social media as we go along. This is just one of those rules that needs some attention.



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