Did Meta Illegally Recruit Former Twitter Employees?

Twitter threatens to sue Meta for theft of intellectual property.

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Jul 10, 2023

A “systematic, willful, and unlawful misappropriation of Twitter’s trade secrets and other intellectual property.”

That’s how Twitter attorney Alex Spiro described his company’s allegations in a recent letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Those include Twitter’s accusation that Meta has violated all sorts of laws and agreements by recruiting former Tweeps to develop its new Threads app, which meta describes as “a new app, built by the Instagram team, for sharing text updates and joining public conversations…[Threads] offers a new, separate space for real-time updates and public conversations.”

The consensus among observers is that this is direct competition to Twitter. And Twitter evidently agrees, labeling Meta’s latest venture a “copycat” application.

In Spiro’s missive to Zuckerbg, he states that over the past year:

Meta has hired dozens of Twitter employees. Twitter knows that these employees previously worked at Twitter; that these employees had and continue to have access to Twitter’s trade secrets and other highly confidential information; that these employees owe ongoing obligations to Twitter; and that many of thes employees have improperly retained Twitter documents and electronic devices. With that knowledge, Meta deliberately assigned these employees to…use Twitter’s trade secrets and other intellectual property in order to accelerate the development of Meta’s competing app, in violation of both state and federal law as well as those employees’ ongoing obligations to Twitter.

As a result, Twitter has threatened to file a lawsuit against Meta. Additionally, Twitter head Elon Musk tweeted about the brouhaha: “Competition is fine, cheating is not.”

“No one on the Threads engineering team is a former Twitter employee — that’s just not a thing,” Meta Communication Director Andy Stone responded on Threads.

Assessing the Allegations

“Twitter must show that employees actually stole/copied proprietary/trade-secret information,” says employment attorney Kate Bischoff. “That’s a very high burden.” Bischoff adds that “Twitter has not been securing trade secrets sufficiently to now demand protection under a court order.”

Plus, as Stanford law professor Mark Lemley told Reuters, “The mere hiring of former Twitter employees (who Twitter itself laid off or drove away) and the fact that Facebook created a somewhat similar site is unlikely to support a trade secrets claim.”

What’s more, businesses alleging theft of intellectual-property secrets must show that they made reasonable efforts to safeguard that information. Yet Twitter made its proprietary algorithm open-source back in March — the exact kind of information that most tech companies guard as top secrets.

As Bischoff points out, Twitter must first prove that what it claims were stolen were, in fact, trade secrets. “That’s hard to do when the company has shared information as open-source,” Bischoff says.

Bischoff goes on to explain that the next burden is “to prove that Twitter properly and reasonably protected those secrets, which can be done through security software and employee agreements, like noncompetition and confidentiality agreements.” However, many of the employees purportedly in question likely work (or worked) in Washington and California, which don’t allow noncompetes, and so it’s unclear what sort of confidentiality agreements (if even valid) may have been in place.

Twitter must then show that employees actually stole information, says Bischoff, who points out, “There’s no evidence of that so far.”

Lastly, the company must show that such theft caused damages. “Theoretically, the 30 million people who joined Threads could be established as damages,” explains Bischoff, “but the burden is on Twitter for the first three steps. I don’t know if the company will produce evidence of the first three.”

That remains to be seen.

The Future of Threads

A lot remains to be seen. The new social-media platform’s future remains to be seen, especially as it relates to Twitter. Recently launched competitors — namely Post.News, Mastodon, and Bluesky — have not caught in a major way with the public.

However, it’s notable that Zuckerberg claimed that Threads had more than 30 million sign-ups by about noon last Thursday, the day it launched.

By contrast, Bluesky has 50,000 reported users.

(As of publication, Meta has not responded to a request for comment. Twitter replied with a poop emoji, which is now the company’s usual reply to media inquiries.)

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