Can your employer claim your social media connections?
Published 29/12/2011 | 10:43
An American blogger is being sued by his former employers over ownership of his Twitter account. Could the same happen here?
Noah Kravitz, a California-based blogger, is being sued by his former employer, PhoneDog, which is seeking damages because he failed to relinquish his Twitter account when he left the company to work for a rival.
PhoneDog said that it had invested in growing the number of followers that Mr Kravitz had on Twitter and the account to be its property. The company told the New York Times: "We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands."
Though disputes over company Twitter accounts are relatively new - and British law is of course different from American law - this case is not without precedent. Earlier this year, the BBC's chief political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg moved from the BBC to ITV and took her Twitter account - and its 58,000 followers - with her. The BBC did not seek legal ownership of her account.
The question of social media account ownership has even reached British courts. In 2008, a British recruitment consultant, Mark Ions, was ordered to hand over his LinkedIn account to his former employer, Hays. A court ruled that Mr Ions contacts constituted confidential information gathered during his work for Hays and therefore the former employer had a right to access the account.
It's less likely, under British law at least, that an employer would be able to claim ownership of a Twitter or Facebook account belonging to an employee or former employer.
To make such a claim, says Paul Griffin, head of the Norton Rose employment team in London, then "you would start by looking at the information and then you would have to make a case for the employee having gathered it during the course of employment".
A scientist blogging about the progress of his research, for example, is likely to be publishing information gathered entirely in the course of employment and therefore his employer might be entitled to claim ownership of the blog.
A Twitter or Facebook account is more likely to contain a mix of personal and professional content so at issue would be whether the information being shared was confidential, says Mr Griffin.
Details of a new product that your employer has not yet announced would probably constitute confidential information, for example. Publishing your company's address would probably not.
However, like the case of Mr Ions, it could be the contacts that your employer wants to control, rather than the content. Hays successfully argued that the contact details Mr Ions had collected were confidential. On Twitter, where most users are publicly visible, such a claim would be unlikely to succeed.
Mr Griffin says: "You could establish that the followers of an account were a database and then belonged to the employer." However, he said that would be unlikely. Nobody really owns followers on Twitter.
Mass online social networks are still a relatively new phenomenon and the law will take some time to adapt. Mr Griffin says there is "no doubt" that we will see more Twitter and Facebook accounts become the subject of employment disputes in future, but he adds: "It is more likely to come up with LinkedIn."