Computer policies used to be fairly simple: no personal emails, no surfing the internet on company time, and especially no porn. Now, with social media and “the cloud,” there are so many more avenues for trouble.

One of the more prevalent issues recently has been who owns Twitter followers when an employee leaves.  The issue is particularly thorny when the employee was hired to manage the employer’s official Twitter account.  The employer will argue that the followers belong to it, because the employee’s job was to send out tweets and increase the number of followers. On the other hand, the employee will argue that the Twitter followers belong to him or her, because they put in all the work to increase the number of followers. While no courts have decided this new issue yet, I believe the best way to view the situation is with a comparison. If the employee was hired to create a paper sales directory, and charged with increasing the number and quality of the contacts in that directory, but was not actually selling the contacts anything, do you think he owns the contacts he added? It seems to me that the contacts would belong to the employer.

Social media also provides an opportunity for employees to voice their opinions, to an increasingly large audience, with no filter.  There have been a number of recent examples of tweets sent out by employees, sometimes using the company’s official Twitter account, making statements harmful to the company. Even when these employees are punished or terminated, the harmful statement will live on until it is deleted, or sometimes longer with media coverage.

Of course, sometimes employees cannot be punished, even for openly criticizing their employer on a social media site.  The NLRB ruled that a group of employees disparaging their employer on a social media site could not be terminated, because the discussion was protected concerted activity.

Another issue for employers, and one that is receiving far less attention, is the danger that “the cloud” poses. There are a number of different services that allow a user to sync files on their computer into “the cloud” (aka servers at different locations accessible from any computer via a web browser or dedicated application). Users can then choose to sync those files in the cloud onto their home computer. Initially, it seems like a great idea. It gives an employee access to their most important documents anywhere. After all, no one wants to fly off to give a presentation only to realize they forgot to copy it to a flash drive or their laptop.  However, an employer does not have any control over who accesses the employee’s home computer, nor can it control the level of anti-virus or firewall protection the employee uses. Any number of viruses or malware, or even good old-fashioned people, can access the employer’s important data without its knowledge.

While the new dangers inherent with computer use are increasing at a rapid pace, carefully crafted computer usage and social media policies will go a long way toward helping to limit those dangers.  And when crafting  new or updated policies, it is particularly important to utilize legal counsel that understands the ever-changing challenges that new technology and innovation create.

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