Who controls my information?

If there was ever any doubt about whether the social web should have its own Bill of Rights, the recent Facebook fiasco certainly took care of that. After being harshly criticized for slipping in changes to their original Terms of Service, Facebook finally gave in (for now) and has reverted to its original terms.

Here’s what happened soon after Facebook altered their Terms of Service:

  • Public uproar grew and the blogosphere was abuzz with users lashing out against the loss of control over their personal information.
  • More than 73,000 people joined the group “People against the new terms of service,” which, along with several other user groups on Facebook, protested the new change.
  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center was set to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about Facebook’s Terms of Service, according to PC World.

Taken aback with the online rebellion, Facebook – in an effort to dispel concerns about who owns user data –  did an about turn and reverted to its original Terms of Service late Tuesday, stating that it would come back with a “substantial revision.”

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Facebook‘s CEO Mark Zuckerberg also said that this time around, “Facebook users will have a lot of input in crafting these terms.” The company also set up a group for its “Bill Of Rights,” where people will be able to provide feedback on the Terms of Service changes. While this may (temporarily) give back users their sense of control, Facebook needs to be more transparent about privacy and ownership.

It’s interesting to note that these issues of privacy, control and freedom were addressed in the Bill of Rights for the social web, created by Joseph Smarr, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington two years ago. The document asserts that users of the social web are entitled to certain fundamental rights:

  • Ownership of their own personal information
  • Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others
  • Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites

While a universally accepted Bill of Rights sounds good in theory, putting it in practice is still a long shot. However, we are now seeing variations of it slowly being put into practice.

For me, the recent debacle proved two things:

  1. The power of the community. This, according to Clay Shirky, is what happens  “when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures.”
  2. There is no question that, now more than ever,  people are aware of their privacy and digital rights – and will not hesitate to demand those rights. The Bill of Rights may not be the solution but it definitely is a step in the right direction.

So, while it may be a little early to celebrate Facebook’s reversal to its original Terms of Service, we can be sure that should Facebook, or any social network, decide to abuse its user’s content, the community will be quick to bring them to task.

Like Michael Dortch, an independent IT analyst says: “While Facebook has the right to publish its users’ private information, you can bet that any hopes of remaining a viable business would disappear within minutes to hours after the company decided to do so without the permission of those users.”

That’s right. The people are watching. And they are not afraid to speak.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. It makes no sense that Facebook would risk messing up a good thing by edging in on people’s intellectual property. They had people’s trust and then they go and risk losing it; not smart.

  2. Simple request: Let me delete my mails and documents! I detected some weeks ago that on Google Docs, even when I delete documents from the trash, they are only hidden from the UI. Deleted documents continue to exist.

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