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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Who Owns a Twitter Account?
January 8, 2012 - 8:43pm

I promised I would provide two more big Internet issues. The second issue is the "ownership" of personal accounts on social networking platforms of individuals who are also employees.

Some legal cases have already given indications as how to think along these lines, even if they were more about free speech and electronic surveillance. A couple of years ago, the NLRB found the firing of an employee for cause who criticized her supervisor for work place concerns on Facebook a violation of constitutionally protected free speech.

The Quan case in California gave the L.A.P.D. the right to terminate the employment of a police officer who violated internal policy for using his issued cell phone for personal use.

The new case is an employee contract dispute that includes a difference over who owns a Twitter account. My guess is that there is more than meets the eye. The Twitter account issue may be standing in for other concerns about a soured relationship.

But that this case raises the question is not without legal significance.  So who does own the Twitter account, the employee or the company?

The answer:  Twitter!

If asked what is the number one confusion that reigns over the concept of the Internet, it would be that most people regard it as public space. To make the point, it is worth restating: it is not public space. The websites that people visit in most cases are private sites, including search engine sites such as Google. What is public about the Internet are the protocols upon which it runs technologically. Because the federal government developed the protocols they became public domain information. That layer of the Internet is not, however, the one intelligible by the common user, and does not render what is created by private developers public.

When the Internet went public in the early 1990s, it became open to the development of e-commerce. The emergence of the giant Internet companies, Google, Amazon, Facebook are evidence of a flourishing successful economic and technological policy.

Many legal questions have been left unanswered, however, and as usual, the law is slow to adapt. Consequently, individuals have entered into cyberspace sometimes at their peril. So while the Twitter account may be a stand-in for other employee-employer contractual issues, it now commands our attention and is likely to be addressed in the time-honored manner of copyright law's distinction between independent contractors and a work for hire. Nonetheless, be on the look out for similar disputes to emerge in the next couple of years, or not.  If you're smart, and in this business of tweeting, blogging or social networking on behalf of an employer, make sure you know the rules before you begin to avoid costly litigation at the other end of ignorance.

See you soon for my final three big Internet issue of the year!


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