Monday, 6 October 2008

Who Owns Your Friends?

Who owns your friends? ‘Nobody’, we might be tempted to answer, but that would not tell the whole story. The advent of Web 2.0 has changed the landscape of friendship and is now starting to bring this issue into focus. An interesting case (Hays –vs- Ions) came across my desk recently and gave me cause for thought. It would appear that, under certain circumstances, your friends can belong to your boss.

The facts of the case are quite interesting. Mr Ions worked for Hays, a recruitment agency based in the UK. The essence of his job was to match suitably qualified candidates to situations as they fell vacant. Networking is a key skill in this area because the successful recruitment consultant has to maintain a continuous flow of good quality candidates with a flow of good quality vacancies. As part of the job, Mr Ions was encouraged by Hays to create an account on Linked-In (a public social networking site based in California) and to develop a network of contacts through the Linked-In account.

This Mr Ions did. He did so very well as it happens. So well that Mr Ions was able to leave Hays to start his own recruitment agency in direct competition to Hays. That is where the problems began. In his new business, Mr Ions used the network of contacts that he developed whilst working for Hays, using information obtained whilst working for Hays, which Hays claims to be confidential. Mr Ions counter-claimed that the information could hardly be confidential because posting it on the Linked-In site placed it in the public domain. Unfortunately, the courts found against Mr Ions (see law report).

This has two implications that speak to the future. First, we ought to note that the action, brought in an English Court for actions that wholly occurred in England resulted in an enforcement notice served and enforced in California. Whilst the web is global in scope, it is local in impact and it is important to consider the local implications of provision on the web. This is even more important now that social networking sites can be deemed to be accomplices to defamation (see law report).

Coming back to the original question, the second implication is that your boss might own your friends. Of course, we might want to redefine what we mean by ‘friends’. Friends, as in people you go to the pub with, are unlikely to be of much interest to your boss, unless, that is, you live the high life outside of work. Colleagues and work acquaintances are more likely to be of interest to your boss. However, as the relationship is between your ‘friends’ and yourself, this social capital is unlikely to be capable of being unlocked by your boss. ‘Friends’, defined as those who you come into contact with through your work life and with whom you have ‘linked-up’ on a social networking site, are more likely to be of interest to your boss. Prior to Web 2.0, we called these people our ‘business contacts’.

This problem of definition is likely to remain as long as we use social networking sites for both our social lives and our working lives. It would be nice to be able to divide the two, but this is hoping for too much. As the greater part of the financial value of modern companies lies in the relationships created by the staff of the companies, it is unlikely that the system will become less restrictive. After all, Hays pursued Mr Ions because they believed that he had taken something of value from them.

Perhaps this urges caution on us all? It may be that, when we change jobs, we might leave with our boss owning our social network account, and thus our ‘friends’.

© The European Futures Observatory 2008

1 comment:

Lee J said...

An interesting read, thanks for nringing this case to my attention!