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Who Actually Owns Your Social Media Data?

Social media not only continues to be an ever integral part of daily life for individuals and businesses, it also divides people’s views about ownership.

If something, anything is posted into the public domain, does anybody own it?

Let’s get the quantity of ownership in to perspective. Pedram Tabibi wrote on the Young Island blog in January this year, that every 60 seconds on the internet there are:

600 new videos posted on YouTube;
over 70 domains registered;
over 1,500 blog posts;
160 million emails sent (every 60 seconds!);
nearly 700,000 searches on Google;
over 695,000 Facebook status updates;
100 new LinkedIn accounts and 320 new Twitter accounts created;
over 98,000 tweets;
over 13,000 iPhone applications downloaded;
38 tons of e-waste generated;
11 million instant messenger conversations;
$219,000 of payments occurring on Paypal;
over 950 e-Bay purchases;
925 iPhone 4s’ sold;
12 websites hacked and 416 hacking attempts; and
1,820 terabytes of data created.

He went on to ask in April if readers could imagine that whatever you contributed to of the above tide was not yours, but the property of your employer? A spate of lawsuits is currently considering the legalities of that, but if it is then it’s aligned to the work that journalists used to do: what they wrote for their papers belonged to the papers.

Twilight Zone

It’s when staff employ social media in their own time in that twilight zone between the working day and their personal time. Just as a police officer is never technically off duty, so in the contemporary economic climate, workers are thinking, researching, sharing ideas that feed through into their jobs.

Tabibi described the lawsuit situations. Often an employee will run a LinkedIn or Twitter account, build up a respectable following and then move on, taking followers (potential customers) along with them. That is regarded as poaching. If you left a retail business to go elsewhere it is bad form and may be illegal in some circumstances to take the client database with you.

There is a widespread feeling that the outcome of the various legal actions will establish case law that will be the reference points for future disputes. In the meantime, though, the situation could be messy. The whole aspect of copyright is very much part of this. Is a tweet copyright? Does it, or should it, enjoy intellectual property protection rights too?

Be Careful What You Share

Just as contentious is the comments people make about colleagues, bosses and the company they work for in general. Employers are demanding the right to access social media to monitor what is said by staff and act accordingly if they don’t like or regard it as bringing the organisation into disrepute. 

In those cases it’s not so much who owns the content, as don’t people have the right to express views about others freely? More companies are now setting up social media policies on an equal status as health and safety, discrimination and remuneration/expenses policies, which then have contractual force.

Who’s Responsible?

Within these guidelines, are clear rules about who owns social media content in the event of an employee moving on and what restrictions are to be placed on future use of the material. They may also prohibit staff from ‘friending’ with clients in any social media to avoid feeling obliged to give preferential treatment.

In other words, business and social are separate spheres in an ideal world. But of course, life isn’t like that. Data has value to all sorts of other people. People know each other, are related, have various agendas and will do what they do…

Way back in October 2008, CBS Interactive staged a debate about social data ownership, and posed the following questions: ‘Who owns social media inside an organization? Who is responsible for it? Who gets the credit if things soar into outer space? Also, how do you share that ownership? Maybe ownership is the wrong word though. Everyone is responsible for social media, right?’

Young Island, Pedram Tabibi, 20 April 12.

Image: Colearn