Why social media disputes can be a Pandora’s box

Social media sites and the use of these sites for personal and business use are accepted in today’s digital world. For many businesses their social media presence is a vital part of their ability to connect, engage and sell to their clients. But what happens, when owners change or the persons running these sites on behalf of a business refuse to provide access to the sites? How easy is it to address these disputes?

Unlocking the chest
To the uninformed, it might seem simple: just a few tweaks and you’re set, right? Well, it can be that straightforward, granted everyone grasps the technical needs and all involved parties collaborate.  But, what happens when this is not the case?

The recent case of Levi and Another v Pakdoust (8271/2023) [2023] ZAWCHC 298 provides a good example of how things may not just be ‘plain sailing’. In this case the co-owners of a business named Nuri Sushi engaged in a dispute involving the administration of the Facebook Page of Nuri Sushi. In terms of the settlement agreement they both entered into, the Respondent was to transfer control of the Nuri Sushi Facebook page to the Applicant, also disengaging from any and all social media platforms relating to Nuri Sushi and all other businesses owned by the Applicant, and removing himself as an administrator and providing the Applicant with all passwords and access information that may be required to do this.

The hidden complications
This all seemed fairly simple and the Respondent soon thereafter followed through in terms of the settlement agreement, doing what both parties thought was sufficient to transfer control of the Facebook page to the Applicant. Yet, the Applicant was still not in control of the Facebook page. Only after instituting arbitration proceedings and obtaining the findings of experts did it became apparent that despite the Respondent’s efforts to transfer control to the Applicant, this actually never really took place. 

Decoding the digital lock
The Respondent was not satisfied with the arbitration proceedings and appointed US attorneys to engage directly with Meta Inc., the company that owns Facebook, to establish what had actually happened. Facebook’s Attorneys informed the Respondent’s attorneys that the Respondent still had administrator rights through the Business Manager Page connected to the Facebook page and that was how Nuri Sushi’s Facebook page could still exist even though the Respondent “removed” himself as an administrator of the Page.

The Applicant upon finding out that the Respondent had the power to transfer control of the Facebook page over to him thereafter brought an application to compel the Respondent to transfer control of the Facebook page to him. The Respondent opposed this application, but the Court ultimately ordered the Respondent do all that is necessary to place the Applicant in the position of being the sole and exclusive administrator of Nuri Sushi Facebook page and furthermore ordered that the Respondent pay the costs of the application.

Safeguarding your digital treasure
The above demonstrates how technical complexities as well as a lack of cooperation can create huge complexity and cost to sort out something that would appear to be a quick fix. Businesses should proactively evaluate their social media management and accessibility to prevent similar disputes, particularly during ownership changes or employee turnover. By doing so, they can avoid potential conflicts and ensure a smooth transfer of control over their digital assets.

Disclaimer: This article is the personal opinion/view of the author(s) and is not necessarily that of the firm. The content is provided for information only and should not be seen as an exact or complete exposition of the law. Accordingly, no reliance should be placed on the content for any reason whatsoever and no action should be taken on the basis thereof unless its application and accuracy have been confirmed by a legal advisor. The firm and author(s) cannot be held liable for any prejudice or damage resulting from action taken on the basis of this content without further written confirmation by the author(s). 

May 29, 2024
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