Who owns your twitter username?

Milena Popova looks at the latest twitter controversy and speaks to @girlgeeks

Image: CC-AT Flickr: michperu (Manuel Iglesias)

When you signed up to Twitter, did you read the small print? Or did you just scroll past the 10-line box of monospaced font Twitter gives you to view their Terms of Service (which are actually six-and-a-half pages long, excluding the "Twitter Rules” which are also part of the ToS), and click “Create Account”? If you’re anything like me, you probably did the latter, and thus missed the following crucial point:

We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services and to terminate users or reclaim usernames.

What you probably also missed was this gem from Twitter’s Trademark policy (not technically part of the ToS as far as I can tell):

When there is a clear intent to mislead others through the unauthorized use of a trademark, Twitter will suspend the account and notify the account holder.
When we receive reports of trademark policy violations from holders of federal or international trademark registrations, we review the account and may take the following actions:

  • When we determine that an account appears to be confusing users, but is not purposefully passing itself off as the trademarked good or service, we give the account holder an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion. We may also release a username for the trademark holder's active use.

So you, me, and the vast majority of the rest of the Twitter community had a very rude awakening last Friday when Twitter “reclaimed” an established username from an active account to hand it to a company with a registered trademark. I spoke to Morna Simpson, the original and now re-instated owner of the @girlgeeks Twitter account and one of the women behind Girl Geek Scotland.

Girl Geek Scotland is probably best described as a Scotland wide community group (or network) that promotes women in technology. It is part of the Girl Geek Dinners Network founded by Sarah Blow in 2005, often referred to as “Girl Geeks" in shorthand and which estimates around 98 groups and 30,000 participants worldwide. Girl Geek Scotland has four teams one in Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and Aberdeen as well as a newly formed media team.

I sometimes joke that it is an elaborate hobby because all our team members work completely voluntarily. Most of our team members work full-time and some own their own businesses, so it is a case of squeezing in the work after hours or at the weekends. We pay our own expenses and we even buy our own tickets for the Girl Geek Dinners that we run. It can be exhausting! We do it because diversity in general is a really important issue and women's rights are also human rights!

For Morna, this is clearly a labour of love, and she has worked tirelessly on it for over two years, building the community, the brand, and its social media presence, including on Twitter.

We have a very broad social media presence that goes back two years in our messy setting-up period. We use Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, Vimeo, Delicious, Pinboard, Linkedin and more. When people blog about Girl Geek Scotland or even when we appear in mainstream press, my Twitter name is frequently used as a key point of contact. It appears in all our mail-outs.

However, @girlgeeks (my Twitter name) is also my personal digital identity. That means that I express my personal (sometimes political) point of view, and sometimes spend time chatting with my friends online.

What is really important about this issue is that @girlgeeks has become a key point of contact for others to get in touch with me. It has become so much a part of my persona that I am sometimes introduced to an audience or individuals as "girlgeeks". I use it in my email signature. So people use it to find me on Skype, blogs, my personal Linkedin and so on.

When Twitter reclaimed the @girlgeeks username, and added an underscore to Morna’s account, this had a massive impact:

I was put in the position of losing a great deal of personal and business contacts whose first point of contact would often be through my Twitter username. To give specific examples, Girl Geek Scotland has received sponsorship and speaker contacts through my @girlgeeks account and I have personally received job offers through it.

The work that I had done (unpaid and voluntarily) in support of the Girl Geek community worldwide was in danger of being credited to an organisation that I am not associated with. The good work of the Girl Geek Scotland team - which I am very proud of - would not be visible. The work that I have done personally could easily be confused with the work of this company.

To add insult to injury, Morna was not given advance warning or the opportunity to dispute the username change. She simply got an email from Twitter, informing her that “We have received a report from Girl Geeks Limited regarding your account, @girlgeeks. To resolve confusion with the trademark owner, we have added an underscore to your username, now @girlgeeks_, and have released the trademarked username to the trademark holders for their active use on Twitter.”

It is easy to see how Twitter, as a commercial service, would be tempted to serve the interest of other commercial companies before those of their users - it is a common conflict of interest in ad-supported business models. Ads on Twitter may not be as intrusive as elsewhere, but that’s what promoted accounts and trends essentially are.

Other web-based business that have fallen into this trap include LiveJournal and Facebook, both of which have been criticised for their treatment of users as a monetisable commodity. Facebook is notorious for its gung-ho approach to users’ privacy; LiveJournal has faced much criticism both for taking the service in a direction users didn’t want and for more serious incidents such as the adverts it was serving containing malware.

Nor is this the first time a commercial company has - accidentally or deliberately - trampled all over individuals, smaller businesses or communities - either in the real world or online. When this kind of dispute happens between big companies, it is generally the lawyers who benefit. When a company is picking on an individual or smaller organisation, chances are that person or organisation will not have the resources it takes to pursue their rights through the courts, so in many cases it would simply be the end of the road.

Luckily for Morna, she had a wide established network of supporters, some of them reasonably influential in the right areas. So when @girlgeeks became @girlgeeks_ on Thursday night, people noticed, they blogged about it and retweeted it. By Monday, over 20,000 people had heard of the incident, and many of them had made their feelings known on Twitter.

There is nothing like a good PR disaster to bring a company to its senses: when faced with customer or community outrage, you had better be damn sure you're doing the right thing. By the time I spoke to Morna on Tuesday, the Girl Geeks trademark owner had realised this - and the impact of their actions on Morna and the Girl Geek Scotland community - and offered to return the @girlgeeks username, which is now back with Morna.

Beyond this, however, Twitter have so far not offered to comment or apologised for the incident. Morna has asked them both for an apology and to review their trademark policy.

I am inclined to believe that this particular incident was not the result of malice, either on the side of the trademark owner or Twitter - it was simply an error of judgement, and those happen to the best of us. Twitter in particular, however, has an opportunity here to learn from this mistake and revise its trademark policy, which currently is wide open to abuse.

Twitter’s main competitive advantage at the moment over other services like Jaiku, Plurk and the popular, Free-Software-based identi.ca is that it has a critical mass of users: if all your friends are on Twitter, you’re not going to go talk to yourself on Jaiku. If, however, enough of your friends are sufficiently put off by one too many errors of judgement or PR disaster, suddenly services like identi.ca start looking a lot more attractive.

In Morna’s words,

Twitter users should lobby Twitter to support individual rights and to review their policies to make changes which are more supportive of individuals and the ethos of free speech and open communication that they have become so closely associated with.

And if that lobbying doesn’t work, we should vote with our feet.

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra


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Comments (4)

  1. Matija :
    Mar 19, 2011 at 12:27 AM

    Identi.ca is actually just one of many StatusNet nodes. Which means that by using it you are not limited to just one server or provider, but can communicate with others as well (imagine it like e-mail).

    The freedom to change your provider while still being able to communicate with everyone as before is something that's so far was not stressed out enough. Thankfully Free Software is building such distributed networks now.

  2. Alison Wheeler (AlisonW):
    Mar 19, 2011 at 11:03 AM

    There is a clear worry over the personal investment we each make in our registrations on the various 'social media' services, indeed evn more than our blogs our twitter and facebook handles can become our online identity with the widest circulation.

    I noted Morna's predicament and did some quick research on the new 'owner' and tweeted the information I found on the UK government's trademark registration website. Now, where you and I might believe that because such information was public then there was no expectation of privacy or confidentiality, Twitter chose to see this as contrary to their TOS and suspended my account, allegedly for a "threat" and giving out personal information.

    Five days later they've reinstated it but not acknowledged that it was already public information but the lack of my usual interaction with others was a definite shock to my system! You can read more about this on my blog at alisonw.com

  3. Jim Killock:
    Mar 19, 2011 at 01:34 PM

    Well, I’ve set myself up an Indenti.ca account to try it out http://identi.ca/jimkillock

    It's obvious to say, but as people’s accounts at twitter and FB get very large, and the as the size of the user base is beyond critical mass, people will be reluctant to abandon them. There are some very serious questions that arise from the way that platforms now dominate the net, rather than open protocols. Clearly those protocols did not foresee the way the net might develop, or did not move fast enough, or something. Which demands some more analysis, about whether open development has to follow or can lead proprietary development.

    We seem to have a very curious paradox that closed platforms were enabled by the very open-ness of the internet, but are now threatening perhaps to restrict future innovations in development, and dominate the way we use it.

    Sorry that's all very theoretical rather than propositional: but hopefully that's part of what the Zine is for ...

  4. mszv - amarez:
    Mar 20, 2011 at 08:41 PM

    I have a different view. It looks like there was a confusion between a personal online identity and an organization identity. It also looks like Morna Simpson muddles Girlgeeks business with her own online identity. I do not see any malice between all parties, not in the slightest, but it looks like a inappropriate or at least confusing business practice to me. If I was interested in the organization, I would be unsure, if I was following the girlgeeks twitter, is that the organization or Morna? Are those the views of the organization or of Morna? I think it is fortuitous that Morna had the proverbial "friends in high places", so she could reclaim her twitter id, but I find the whole thing a bit vexing. If was following girlgeeks, I would think I was following the organization and not Morna.

    Personally, I am very strong about having a personal online identity that is not mixed with an organization online identity. However much you identify with an organization or a cause, one is not the other. If it was me, I would have set myself a project to migrate my twitter id to a new one, a personal one.

    This is an interesting topic.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Milena Popova on Mar 18, 2011

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