Thursday, July 24, 2008

Who Owns the Social Network?

I’m still scratching my head over an article I found in a recent newsletter from Foviance, a British customer-experience firm. It describes a recent British court decision that awarded partial contents of an employee’s social network to his employer.

The employeer, Hays Specialist Recruitment, is an executive recruiting firm. The former employee, MarkIons, had set up his own recruiting firm before leaving Hays and used the LinkedIn network he built while in the employment of Hays to solicit business for his new firm. According to the British Computer Weekly (note two interesting links at the bottom of this article):

A court judgment ordered Ions to disclose his LinkedIn business contacts and all e-mails sent to or received by his LinkedIn account from the Hays computer network, but stopped short of requiring him to disclose his entire database of clients, as requested by Hays.

Interesting, as is another article referenced by Foviance in the Times Online in which employees were urged to keep business and social network contacts separate. One, that’s hard to do; and, two, if your business and personal life is as entwined as mine is, you wouldn’t want to anyway.

The Foviance newsletter pointed out that the articles it referenced did not comment on implications beyond this case. The fact that the firms involved are recruiters is probably important, even though contacts are the life blood of other industries also. I wonder if it mattered to the court that the employee had started his business while still employed by Hayes.

This seems counter to what is going on in the US. Not only are there networks springing up all over the place, especially the B2B verticals, there are efforts to move data seamlessly between them. I’ve written about FriendFeed and OpenSocial. There is, in fact, a trade organization devoted to the subject.

So I bring up the issue without knowing whether it is--or will become--a problem. If it does, I don’t know what the best solution would be. But social networks are here to stay, and the business vs. the personal use of them may create issues that need to be considered.


Anonymous said...

I agree, this could get really tricky. I think the fact that they are recruiters must have played an important role in the judge's decision. I have often used a combination of social-business contacts from my LinkedIn network. A good friend's wife has a professional services agency that could help us out at work. What category is that?!

I think that another concept underlying the judgement is the old (?) one that your boss has the (intellectual) property rights to anything you "create" at work. Perhaps we shall all need to reconsider what that really means in the near future.

MaryLou Roberts said...

You're right, Alisa--it really does open up a lot of issues! I'm not a fan of "policies" for everything, but businesses clearly need to think about the new kinds of intellectual property and who owns them. Interesting!