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Do you own your social profile?

January 5th, 2012 by Lloyd Gofton

Recently the issue of social profile ownership has come to the fore with the very public case
of Noah Kravitz, a blogger based in California who 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.

This probably sounds ridiculous, but we have already experienced a similar case in the UK as far back as 2008, when a recruitment consultant working for Hays,  Mark Ions, was ordered to give the rights to his LinkedIn account to his former employer. The court ruled that information of a confidential nature was collected during his work and that the company deserved to have full access to his account. Conversely, last year the BBC’s chief political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg moved from the BBC to ITV and took her Twitter account, which had 58,000 followers with her. The BBC did not seek legal ownership of her account, although there was discussion of the issue elsewhere.

You may think this is a crazy conversation considering the social profiles were in the individual’s name, but the employers have a good argument if the profiles were used solely, or at least for the majority of time, for work purposes, contain work-based contacts and in effect represent the individual’s record of work-based conversations.

That’s not to say I agree with the ruling, far from it, but we need to be aware of the slow moving legal response to fast moving technologies. In other words, the law doesn’t move as quickly as social media, so expect rulings to be based on the most sensible work-based comparison, which generally would have remained the property of the employer after the employee left, e.g. customer files and or contact books. That being said, one would hope that in most cases our social profiles represent a mixture of personal and work-based discussion, so we should not see ownership battles ongoing between employers and employees, and of course this issue could have been avoided if relevant social media guidelines were in place.

It would be interesting to see the outcome of a similar case in a PR, digital or social agency, and how that might affect future norms between employers and employees across the sector. However, so far it seems common sense has prevailed, or perhaps policy has won the day.

In the current PhoneDog case, the company has said that it is taking the action because it had invested in growing the number of followers that Mr Kravitz had on Twitter and the account was its property, alleging that those followers are, in effect, a customer list and PhoneDog’s property. The company wants Kravitz to pay $340,000: $2.50 per follower per month for 18 months.

PhoneDog was quoted in the New York Times saying: “We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.”

Jon Rettinger, President, TechnoBuffalo (Noah’s current employer) responded with the following statement: “I have remained silent on the issue, privately supporting Noah, hoping that this issue would be resolved. However, further reflection and consultation has made me realize the time for silence is over. TechnoBuffalo is a news outlet, and this situation quite clearly has become news. We stand firmly behind Noah, disagree with the frivolous suit PhoneDog has filed, and hope swift justice will be served. This equates to school yard bullying, and should be met with disgust by the world. We stand behind our employees as we would family. Noah has the full support of the Herd. I urge you all to speak up!”

A hearing in the case, PhoneDog LLC v. Kravitz, is scheduled for January 26 in San Francisco and I expect some interesting responses from organisations across the world, in terms of tightening up policies, whatever the outcome.

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