There may be trouble ahead for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) who neglect to adopt formal corporate social media policies. Lack of clearly defined company social networking accounts and data ownership criteria means they could be storing up legal trouble for themselves in the not too distant future and potentially leave the SMB sector with significant legal issues over data ownership.
Many SMBs are now truly embracing social networking applications by adopted them within their overall marketing strategies. It is almost impossible to track who owns this data as social data content is aggregated from site to site. As businesses of all sizes and types embrace social networking as a way to propagate messages and build their brands the line dividing personal and company data is becoming increasingly blurred. The important thing is that companies take steps to protect themselves as much as possible in advance.
Some simple tips to protect your social media assets and avoid litigation over data ownership:
Include a corporate social media policy alongside internet usage guidelines
Make sure company accounts are totally separate from employee personal accounts
Ensure company Facebook and twitter accounts are not tied to employee personal email accounts
Ex-employer seeks damages over non surrender of Twitter account
The legal position is at a very early stage of development. You may have read about Noah Kravitz, a California-based blogger who is being sued by his former employer, PhoneDog. His ex-employer is seeking damages because Mr. Kravitz did not surrender his Twitter account to them when he left the company. PhoneDog believe they had heavily invested in helping Mr Kravitz grow the number of followers he had on Twitter and therefore the account should be their property. The company view this Twitter account as a confidential customer list and the intellectual property of Phone Dog.
In a statement to the New York Times, the company said: “The costs and resources invested by PhoneDog Media into growing its followers, fans and general brand awareness through social media are substantial and are considered property of PhoneDog Media”.The dispute really hinges on why the account was opened in the first place. Phone Dog believe if the account was opened on behalf of PhoneDog and to be used to communicate with customers then the Twitter account is their property. Mr Kravitz maintains he opend the account with a view to using it for both professional and personal reasons and this is where the questions of why the account was opened gets blurred. This blurring between work and personal is particularly problematic in the social networking sphere.
Legal conflicts over data ownership not restrited to Twitter
Such legal conflicts have occured with other social media platforms also, in another less recent UK case a recruitment consultant moved confidential contact information to his LinkedIn account whilst employed at Hays Recruitment. This decision was one of the first to highlight the tension between businesses encouraging employees to use social networking websites for work but then claiming that the contacts and content remain confidential information at the end of their employment.
In 2007 a judgement involving the UK arm of a US business to business media publishing group (PennWell Publishing v Ornstein) ruled that the employer owned the outlook contacts of a former journalist employee even though this list contained both work and personal contacts some of which had been brought to the company by the employee.
Not defining what company data is in advance can be a costly oversight
As we’ve seen this blurring between work and personal becomes even more problematic in the social networking sphere. It’s time for every company to include a corporate social media policy alongside internet usage guidelines as part of their employment terms to avoid possible litigation and protect their social media assets and property. Without a clear internet policy many employees are unaware of the implications of sharing information on sites like Linkedin and if appropriate protection is absent many employers risk being drawn into costly legal wrangles with employees as time goes on.