Early today, Quartz India carried a story on the Bennett, Coleman and Company Ltd (BCCL) asking its employees to handover their Twitter and Facebook passwords. According to the report, BCCL employees were asked to convert their personal Twitter and Facebook accounts into company accounts. Through these accounts, the company would have the right to post on behalf of its journalists.
The report also stated that BCCL journalists could not post any news links on their personal Twitter and Facebook accounts, should they wish to keep them separate from their company accounts. This, according to the report, was under a contract that was “unveiled” to its employees last week.
Given how ludicrous the whole thing sounds, the story caught on and immediately had people outraging on Twitter. We asked a couple of journalists what they thought about the whole thing. Naturally, some expressed disbelief. “Is this for real!” said NDTV Group Editor Barkha Dutt. Vikram Chandra, executive editor in the same channel, however, seemed nonchalant: “No real comments. Their choice,” he said.
Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta stated what needed to be said, “This is ridiculous! It’s an infringement of freedom of speech enshrined in our Constitution under Article 19 A. And although ‘reasonable restrictions’ are mentioned, this does not fall under that. It is beyond anyone’s imagination on why they would do this. Also it is unimplementable,” he said.
Meanwhile, Satyan Gajwani, CEO Times Internet, tweeted that the story was inaccurate. Gajwani, to put it mildly, is talking through his hat. The Quartz story is perfectly accurate in detailing the contents of the letter that BCCL asked its employees to sign last week. In fact, the only party who’s being inaccurate here is Gajwani, given that Times of India’s social-media autocracy has been entrenched in its employee contract for quite some time now. So, the one count – insignificant in the larger scheme of things — on which the Quartz story could be “inaccurate”, is the suggestion that TOI’s Twitter and Facebook policy was something new and that the company had “just” instituted these.
Newslaundry has in its possession the TOI official contract and the letter BCCL gave its employees apropos social-media clauses last week. It seems the company wanted to emphasise in the letter what the contract already binds its employees to do, just in case they had forgotten. In fact, the author of the Quartz report may have signed a contract with the same clause, considering his last assignment was with The Economic Times, part of the Times Group.
Contract And Clauses
Apart from stating that BCCL shows more “appreciation” for those who keep away from smoking and drinking, the contract contains rather prohibitive clauses which no one in their right mind would want to agree to. But, then again, the reality of the media industry is that journalists seldom go through the fine print in contracts while accepting job offers and, in the process, do away with their basic rights.
Under the Code of Conduct (Integrity) subhead, the TOI contract asserts that the employee and his or her relative should not accept any gift from any person who may seek to have dealings with the company. So far, so good. Bizarrely, it goes on to state that gifts given as prizes at exhibitions or as part of a free raffle may be accepted but “in principle” it belongs to the company.
Given that TOI wants a piece of its employees’ freebies too, it’s hardly surprising that it wants to own its employees with the clauses it has on intellectual property rights (IPRs).
The contract states all IPR related to work done or created by an employee rests solely and exclusively with the company. This includes all literary, dramatic or artistic work done in the course of the contract.
It also suggests that IPR related to all posts on social networking website like Facebook and Twitter vests solely with the company in “perpetuity”. Employees are also asked to seek prior written approval before creating posts or “any material or work in any media”. The contract states that all acronyms and passwords used for creating or posting any such material or work shall be deemed to be the sole property of the company.
TOI contract magnanimously allows employees to operate “any internet user account in a personal capacity”. But with a rider: “You shall not post any news and other related material on such personal internet user account.”
Indeed, the letter that BCCL asked its employees to sign last week recaps the above clause. Here are some excerpts:
“You agree the posts made by you are a part of your responsibility under your contract with the company and the user account and the related post and content are the intellectual property owned by the company.”
“You shall inform the company about your personal user accounts and the same will be allowed by the company subject to you refraining from posting any news and other related material on the same.”
So, if the TOI contract already had draconian clauses in place to restrict its employees, why did it feel the need to emphasise them all over again in the letter? Perhaps because the contract does not specify that employees must open a “user account” and only details the restrictions on one’s personal account. And since no one in the company got around to actually adhering to the clause, perhaps the management thought it is important to deliver a reminder to do so.
Alternatively, it is possible that certain contracts before the social-media age did not contain this particular clause. The company perhaps thought it prudent to get everyone on the same page, as far as conduct on social media is concerned, by making all its employees sign the new letter. Our emails and text messages seeking a response from Gajwani on these questions went unanswered at the time of this story going online.
The Times Group is set to make its first major foray in the online space of the country. It is official that it has partnered with Huffington Post to launch the US-based website’s India edition. The website is supposed to be up and running by November. Always on the lookout for ingenious ways to kill competition, did BCCL think it could start at home by controlling what and what not its employees can post on social media? If so, we’d be worried for Huffington Post.