Your company doesn't own your Internet presence

Your company doesn't own your Internet presence

Summary: I'm tired of the social media B.S. If your company wants to "get" social media, then tell it to get its paws off your likeness.


PaidContent published an absolutely absurd piece yesterday on the departure of New York Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts, who happens to be quite popular on Twitter, the real-time microblogging platform.

Jim -- a lovely fellow by any measure -- has some 75,000 followers. The premise is that the New York Times or any other employer could very well claim a person's following as a tool of doing business, no different than your corporate laptop or the proprietary documents it holds.

Oh, hell no.

Allow me to count the ways in which this is ridiculous:

  1. Legally, Twitter doesn't own your tweets -- but it does own its user accounts. How, exactly, can a company claim jurisdiction over parts of another's platform?
  2. If followers have a market price, does the government get to tax it?
  3. Individuals have work lives and home lives; as people, they are whole. A Twitter account can reflect both. In this scenario, how can a company reasonably claim ownership of an individual's account? (Do they get to take photos of your children, too?)
  4. Further, what if that account precedes the person's relationship with the employer?
  5. For a prominent journalist like Jim, it wouldn't be unreasonable to make an argument that he's a public figure -- that's partially his job -- and so his likeness may be of concern to an employer. But in the social media era, aren't we all?
  6. Finally, the "likeness" and public figure argument gets even shakier once you extrapolate it out to other parts of the Internet. Does a company own your Tumblr? Your Facebook profile and activity? Your resume on LinkedIn? Your ZDNet account and comments?

Questions like this first came about when individual users of the Internet became public users -- when anonymity began to give way to real names, and individuals could be easily connected to their employers. Risk-averse employers tried to clamp down, even though the social web grew largely unfettered. This is the same dynamic that drives the bring-your-own-device, or BYOD, phenomenon in the enterprise.

But it's 2013. Are we really still talking about this? Is there still a lingering perception in business that companies have direct control over what their employees do elsewhere in their lives -- especially on the Internet? (Does the U.S. government lay claim to the followers of Barack Obama when he leaves office? C'mon.) Employers can disapprove of certain activity, sure. But they cannot own.

It's time to face reality. If your company wants to be a social enterprise, as so many seem to lately, then it needs to get the basics down. (To the Times' credit, claiming Roberts' followers was never a question -- it didn't think or care to take them, even though he has "NYT" in his handle, which will soon be changed.) That we must continue to debate this issue is counterproductive.

The people you employ are on the Internet. Get over it.

Topic: Social Enterprise

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Control

    They won't 'get over it'.
    The control freaks never do. They Must have control. It is wired into their heads. They will continue to try to get or maintain control no matter how hopeless the effort is.

    The correct response is 'no'. When it comes to government and business I expect journalists to be turning over rocks and shining a bright light on this whenever they hear of it.
    Game ON.
    • should contact Loverock Davidson

      to lead your charge against the evel forces of the world.................
      Over and Out
  • I thought the only legal recourse a company had over it's employees

    regarding social media concerns centered around an employee's public comments regarding his company.

    In other words, a company could legally terminate an employee's contract if that employee stated derogatory remarks towards that company - or confessed to actions violating a company's code of conduct.

    Now, it get's a little complicated when a person is public figure. More complicated when that person has a large online social following. If that person is identified with a particular company than that person's actions MIGHT be argued as a reflection upon that company's public reputation. This might cause complications pertaining to a person's employment status with that company.

    The ramifications of social media exposure intersecting a Corporate identity image is a legal "gray area" mess, to say the least.

    In some ways, an employee's Corporation does OWN his public persona.
  • It's all about IDENTITY.

    I had the good fortune recently of meeting a person in a social setting involved in law enforcement investigation & prosecution of online ID theft or impersonation. He said that if an employer or publisher a.) removes attribution from you work; b.) exercises wrongful attribution by claiming someone else produced your work; or c.) creates new content under your name or identity and claims your identity wrote/ produced, etc the new or modified content, or; d.) impersonates you by communicating with others while leading them or allowing them to believe that they are corresponding with you: that person or entity has committed offense(s) that are actionable in a court of law. It does NOT matter if your professional name / identity is your actual legal name or not, and it does NOT matter that you have or have not copyrighted your identity; only that you have published/ performed, etc using that identity. EXAMPLE: try doing any of of the above violations to the identities of Earnest Hemingway, Madonna, The Beatles, or Lady Gaga. My understanding is that impersonation is prosecutable in a criminal court of law. The others may be actionable in civil court or both.
    Paul B. Wordman
    • Someone should arrest Lady Gaga then

      She's been impersonating Madonna for years.
      • It's a good thing that ....

        ... my parents named me "rock-zero-six-romeo" then. Otherwise I might be illegally impersonating myself.

        It's all so confusing once we start using our real names?!?!
      • About which Madonna says:

        "She's not me!" :-)
  • But what she is NOT doing is

    But what she is NOT doing is using Madonna's name/ identity, and she is Not producing/ publishing content under Madonna's name/ identity, nor does she claim to have created, or authored Madonna's content, nor does Madonna's publisher deny or remove attribution thereby claiming that she did not author her content.
    Paul B. Wordman
  • This is WAAAY more complicated

    If you tweet things -- or more usually, build up a list of contacts on LinkedIn -- related to your work, especially while you are ON THE JOB, then heck yeah, your employer has at least partial ownership of this stuff. Imagine if as part of your job you build up a huge contact list that you maintain in LinkedIn instead of in Outlook, since that's how people do business these days. Those contacts are *clearly* your employer's, not yours. It doesn't matter that you *also* have your old high-school buddies in there. When you leave, sorry, but it's time to hand over the LinkedIn account. By the way, courts have dealt with this issue and in most cases agree.

    Consider further that your employer is LIABLE for the things you say outside of the office if they are related to your job (and yes, they are) and you can see why businesses need to have some control over the social media use of their employees. This is why, for instance, I think it really *is* a good idea for employers to demand access to employee's Facebook pages. They need to know what you are saying in public or they could wind up on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Facebook is a public platform. Whatever is said on Facebook must be considered said "in public." And if you are bitching on Facebook about your obnoxious coworker or that the new product isn't coming along as well as hoped, just imagine the potential repercussions (if you say these things in a bar or other public space and are overheard, you *can* be sued).

    Social media is hard, but to just flippantly say "oh, hell no" is to misunderstand entirely what businesses have on the line.

    So, back to the Twitter account at hand: Twitter is public. If people are interested in what you tweet because they are interested *in your work* then your following is your employer's. Sorry.
    x I'm tc
    • Apples versus Oranges

      You are confusing Identity with other issues. Our opinions are not consequential The law is clear about identity theft and impersonation.

      You seem to be zeroing in on customer contact information, and or defamation of an employer, and a host of other matters.

      A facebook or linked-in account is an IDENTITY, and that is what can not be lawfully stolen. Forget for a moment that those accounts are online.

      I worked for a Fortune-100 media company as an Account Executive (adverting sales). The fact that I worked there and established business contacts for that company does not mean the company can STEAL my IDENTITY & PRETEND to BE ME, or anyone else. The business contact info belongs to them and can be copied easily and retained by the company. They can NOT assume the identities of employees, nor did that media giant do so. When I left they said to clients: "Let us introduce you to your new Account Executive, Linda.

      Again, do NOT confuse IDENTITY with other issues.
      Paul B. Wordman
    • Exactly

      I once asked my cousin who works at Best Buy in the geek squad about a PC problem, he answered incorrectly so I sued Best Buy and won millions! Companies need to be liable for everything their employees do outside of the work force!
      Koopa Troopa
    • Beware legal sharks and use of company accounts!

      If the NYT legally pursues current or former employees over the use of a personal name as a social networking name, it would likely lose in court. Any company that goes down that road is likely trying to scare that the current/former employee through the high legal costs (often not reimbursed) that may be needed to defend that person's use of their name.

      The real question is whether the NYT or its Editor Jim Roberts owns the intellectual property rights to the "Jim Roberts" name used on social media websites.

      If Roberts registered the name as a trademark with the US Patent and Trademark Office on his own and did not sign away these Intellectual Property rights through a contract while employed at the NYT, then he likely owns the "Jim Roberts" trademark name. This same IP rights issue has been discussed in Federal courts the past and decided in favor of the company when the magazine Infoworld sued a former writer for misusing the registered name "Robert Cringely" in the "Notes from the Field" column. The former reporter had tried to claim the name for personal use when he legally changed his birth name to "Robert Cringely" through a state court.

      Other related issues revolve around whether the social networking name was used in business communications to discuss the company and/or whether any of business's company equipment was used to create or maintain the "Jim Roberts" account.
  • Limits

    But why the assumption an employer has more rights to your account than you do. If there is "work interest" in the account and personal information in the account, sounds like the account would have to be split. Business's do not have more legal standing than an individual (they should have much less but that's a separate issue). Also if you say something about your employer that can be construed as having to do with promoting the common good of employees of that employer, that right is protected under the law. So just complaining about an employer to no end could be restricted but if the employee is communicating with other employees concerning an issue they would like to press with the employer, the employer has no right to restrict their communications as long as the actions proposed are legal. Your success defending that right can meet with varying success. The NLRB (national labor relations board) is the forum for that sort of dispute.
  • the problem with being an employee

    The laws are all written for the benefit of the corporate entity. Best solution, don't be an employee. A lot of techies do quite well that way. Why do you think LLCs are so popular?
  • thoughts

    "The premise is that the New York Times or any other employer could very well claim a person's following as a tool of doing business, no different than your corporate laptop or the proprietary documents it holds.

    Oh, hell no."

    Agreed. A company may have its own official handles - but it does not own the personal handles of its employees.

    If a company wants to create *official* handles for its own use, it should have *clear policy* on the handles and establish them as *official* handles. It should be clear in the policies of the business.

    If that's not the case - then I'd say there's a problem with the business's policies concerning social media . . .

    "But in the social media era, aren't we all?"

    Eh, no. A minor quibble, I suppose - but no, the internet has not made "everybody a public figure." I certainly don't consider myself a public figure, even though it's probably not hard to find me.

    "Are we really still talking about this?"

    Considering you decided to write an article about it - I think you answered your own question ;).
  • BYOD

    Is a method for a company to "externalize" costs i.e. the cost of the device comes out of the employees' salaries rather than the company budget. I am astonished that employees don't understand this, and consider BYOD as some kind of benefit bestowed by the company. Imagine the fun when company data is interspersed with personal data (as in a contact list) and the employee leaves the company. At minimum, people sucked into BYOD should insist on total separation of data by means of OS (like BB10) or app (like those available for Android.