How much is a Twitter follower worth?

A US company is suing a former employee for taking his Twitter followers when he left. What are the

Twitter loves nothing more than a story about Twitter, so the news yesterday that a US company is planning to sue a former employee for taking his followers with him spread fast.

Noah Kravitz tweeted for Phonedog as @Phonedog_Noah, building up 17,000 followers. When he left the company, he changed his username to @noahkravitz but took the followers with him. He claims that his former employer gave him permission to continue using the account after he left, as long as he tweeted on their behalf occasionally. However, the company is now seeking damages of $2.50 (£1.60) per user, per month, for eight months -- adding up to $370,000.

The company has given the following statement:

The costs and resources invested by PhoneDog Media into growing its followers, fans and general brand awareness through social media are substantial and are considered property of PhoneDog Media L.L.C. We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.

Moving on from the predictable outrage spawned on Twitter, there are some interesting legal issues here. Of course, it is impossible to draw any unequivocal conclusions based solely on news reports (as opposed to the details of the lawsuit). But it is immediately clear that this could have far-reaching implications for the way that individuals and companies use social media.

There are several key issues here. Firstly: what cost can be placed on Twitter users? How much value social media actually adds is difficult to quantify: how can a company say for sure that X number of Twitter followers has led to X increase in profits or uptake of services? The amount accepted by the court -- if any -- could set a precedent for future cases.

In fact, Twitter is often more useful as a branding tool (rather than a straight-up profit-increasing tool), which leads to the second key issue of intellectual property, the law which Phonedog plans to use. This is also difficult to define, as the New Statesman's legal correspondent David Allen Green explains:

On the basis of the news reports, it appears that the employer is trying to fashion an intellectual property claim rather than a straight contractual claim. If so, the employer may find it rather difficult to explain to a court which of the categories of "intellectual property" such a follower list falls into. The employee did not create the follower list with -- to use the legal jargon -- the "sweat of the brow". Instead, the follower list is voluntary and self-elective by the followers. That is not the same as a normal "database".

Overall, this case will perhaps show how well intellectual property law is adapting to social media. The irony is, of course, that until recently many employers prohibited the use of social media and saw it as too legally risky, but now employers seem to want the legal fruits of good social media practice by their employees.

Clearly, there can be no hard and fast rule, as there will be vast differences in circumstances. Some tweeters might be taken on by media companies because they already have a strong media presence: do they then automatically retain ownership of their own followers? What about those who build up their personal brand while still affiliated to a company?

As social media becomes increasingly important to companies of all descriptions, so this hazy area must become codified. Whichever way this case goes, we can expect an increase in people coming to clear agreements with their employers about who owns their Twitter followers.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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