Brad Feld

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Who Really Owns Your Email?

Dec 23, 2007

I’ve periodically engaged in the debate about who actually owns your email.  The assertion that email sent from your corporate email address is owned by the company is a difficult one for me to deal with, especially since email has become a ubiquitous means for communication.  As a result I find the entire thing tiresome – but important. 

I’m a big believer in private property rights.  I also know the risk of the government granting a property right inappropriately (for example, the evils of software patents.)  Today, the New York Times reported that The National Labor Relations Board Restricts Union Use of E-Mail.

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that employers have the right to prohibit workers from using the company’s e-mail system to send out union-related messages, a decision that could hamper communications between labor unions and their membership.

In a 3-to-2 ruling released on Friday, the board held that it was legal for employers to prohibit union-related e-mail so long as employers had a policy barring employees from sending e-mail for “non-job-related solicitations” for outside organizations.

The ruling is a significant setback to the nation’s labor unions, which argued that e-mail systems have become a modern-day gathering place where employees should be able to communicate freely with co-workers to discuss work-related matters of mutual concern.

I’m not a fan of unions, but this is stupid.  Solution #1: Union members all get a Google Apps account ( and use that for union communications.  Since it’s a union email account, shouldn’t that be ok even thought it’s being sent via a web browser on a work computer?  I don’t know union rules well enough, but do they prohibit interaction with other union members on work facilities during work hours?  If not, then this should work.

Stupid Company Trick #1: If the company believes it owns the email, doesn’t it actually want the email on the company’s e-mail system?  If the company has made every employee sign a little thing saying "we own your email", this would give the company the right to read all the union-related email which seems to give the company a big advantage here!

Stupid Government Trick #1: Why is our government wasting tax payer dollars on this? (Hint – this is a rhetorical question.)