Wed 18 Feb 2009
The recent uproar over changes to Facebook's terms of service has been loud enough to force them to recant the changes. That was a wise PR move, but Facebook has nothing to apologize for. I think this uproar is largely the result of some very simplistic, overly-entitled thinking about ownership of online data.
For me this breaks down into a very practical issue. Facebook changed their terms to say that information about you would not be deleted, and you could not revoke your license for Facebook to use it for whatever it wanted, even if you deleted your account on Facebook. At a very simple level that sounds crazy. When you delete your account, you expect that your information gets deleted too.
But think a little deeper and it gets much harder to think about how such deletion would work. When I delete my account, I expect my profile to go away. And it would. But, especially if I've been an active user, my fingerprints are all over the frickkin' place. I've left comments, joined groups, recommended things. I've posted photos, tagged other people's photos, written on walls, posted links and videos, many of which have been forwarded around. Maybe I've participated in collective, synthetic products – polls, ratings, and reviews, for example. When I stop using Facebook, which of these things should be deleted?
I certainly don't have an answer, but the key point for me is that no one has an answer. And as long as we can agree that there's no easy way to figure this out, we have to acknowledge that Facebook may just be responding to the uncertainty that's out there. I don't think they're trying to be devious, they're just recognizing the obvious.
Ownership of digital information is tough. It's tough enough when our digital goods are simple and atomic – like our pictures and profiles. But when things get synthetic and derivative, it's even worse. Who owns a collective product like Wikipedia? Who owns the synthetic public good that is created by Digg users? When I quit using Digg, should my part of that collective intelligence be removed because I still own it and revoke my permission to use it?
These are the questions that will make this one of the most important issues of this year. The silver lining in all of this is that Facebook seems to be doing what's right – stepping back from an internal decision, listening, starting a conversation. We'll need to figure this out, and quick, so let's give Facebook some credit for helping us along in the right way.