Smile Politely

It’s your data, so do not surrender it

Facebook revised their terms of service early in February, causing quite a stir among its users. The reason for the unrest was the removal of a particular line from the terms. Prior to the change, Facebook’s terms indicated the site could keep your data, sublicense it, and use it in any other fashion they saw fit, so long as you maintained a profile with them. In making the change, they struck that final clause, thus claiming the right to do all those things even after you delete your account. After sufficient bad press, courtesy of the active Facebook user community, Facebook relented and reverted to an earlier version of its terms of service. For the time being, Facebook will again discontinue its abuse of your data after you delete your account.

Arguably, most types of online services we sign up for are useful in our daily lives. Most people who use them wouldn’t want to simply give them up. Presuming we want to retain control of our data and thus preserve its value to us, how do we then continue using these services when the services’ terms of use are outrageous? Ultimately, I don’t believe we’ll be able to use online services owned by corporations and guarantee ourselves control over our own data at the same time. We’ll never protect our rights as long as we allow corporations to handle our data.

In order to rectify this situation, we could start with some reform actions. It would be ideal, however unlikely to succeed, to begin a movement to pass legislation that would restrict the ownership-like rights corporate online service providers can express over data you upload. We could leverage our collective power in the market to demand less restrictive terms of service, or even that we be fairly compensated for our data. Any such effort would undoubtedly be attacked as limiting the freedom of the corporation. But it’s only fair that we be repaid for the data we provide, since every piece of personal information that we submit eventually translates into revenue for that corporation.

At the same time, any solution focused on reform of a corporation’s ability to set arbitrary terms of service will not address the root of the issue: that the owner of the service will still retain absolute practical, if not legal, control over our data. We’ve already witnessed one corporation abuse this control. Since 2005, AT&T has been sifting, filtering, and otherwise spying on data sent across its backbone for the National Security Agency and private industry groups. This behavior is so blatantly illegal that it took an act of Congress to ensure that AT&T could never be sued for their willingness to bow to state and corporate power.

If we want to retain absolute control over our data, we must be the ones who control access to it. The most immediate way to accomplish this is to run a personal web server from one’s home PC. Technically, setting this up is very easy. Some operating systems have reduced the process of starting a web server to clicking a single button. You may have to mess with your router a little bit, but this option is doable for most. With a little effort one can generate a simple web page that contains all the information that your Facebook profile contains. You can start a blog and host your pictures here, too. And it would all be viable if it weren’t for the dubious restrictions of service imposed by the private corporation that lets you access the internet in the first place. A very quick read of the Comcast terms of service for high speed internet access reveals a surprising restriction. From section 7.b of the Comcast High Speed Internet terms of service:

“You agree not to use HSI [High Speed Internet] for operation as an internet service provider, a server site for ftp, telnet, rlogin, e-mail hosting, “Web hosting” or other similar applications, for any business enterprise, or as an end-point on a non-Comcast local area network or wide area network.”

Comcast says that running a personal web server (among other services) is strictly verboten. Someone with the technical know-how and self respect to ignore this particular rule could implement a workaround — such as using particular firewall settings — to fool Comcast’s methods of checking whether you’re running any kind of disallowed server. But for most people, this is not an option and carries with it a significant risk: a nasty phone call from the cable company or a disconnection of service.

The way we use technology today, routing our information through a set of private services from e-mail to social networks to the internet connection itself, is in many ways antithetical to the idea of users retaining control over the content that they share online. It follows that any solution to this problem must have as little involvement with private interests as possible. So, the real solution may lie in users themselves. In order to control something, one must have power, and power increases in numbers. What if users agreed to create a set of online services for themselves that they controlled? Imagine an e-mail provider, a social network site, and a photo sharing site created by users with terms of service agreed upon by all users of the services. If you don’t like the service, if you want more features, if you want to change the terms of service, then attend a meeting of users to make your case. The services would belong to you as much as any other user.

In this imaginary scenario, the community would collectively own an organization, say a non-profit corporation. The non-profit would only act to execute decisions made by a consensus of its users or voted on democratically. The users would set the terms of service, if any. The terms of use could be that the user is solely responsible for their use of any service run by the cooperative. This would ensure that no user has authority over how any other user takes advantage of the services.

The coop could provide a range of services, from simple e-mail and web hosting to blogging utilities and even a social network service. The possibilities are limited only by the will and collective resources of the users/owners of the cooperative.

Many applications would be simple to implement. Newer applications, such as social networking or microblogging would pose greater issues. Some would argue that the strength of services such as Facebook is that they are centralized. For example, if you want to know more about a friend of a friend you met at the bar last night, you can log on to Facebook and add them from your friend’s list of friends. Good thing everyone uses Facebook. But a social network run by a coop would not share the ability to host millions of users like Facebook. Not everyone will want to join the same coop. Some may prefer one where users make decisions only by consensus, while others will prefer to vote for someone to represent them in such decisions. These users would maintain profiles on two entirely different social networks.

Fortunately, centralization is not as critical as Facebook would like you to believe. People who want to view their friends profiles don’t need to maintain profiles on the same site, their sites must merely agree to speak the same language, or be able to translate from one profile format to another. This kind of agreement is only possible within the context of a user-controlled service, because it would benefit only the users. Facebook would have no interest in allowing to you access profiles on MySpace, because they want you to join and remain focused on Facebook.

While we build these new, truly free online services, we must be wary of the wiles of the incumbent masters of our information. In the wake of the Facebook terms of service debacle, it has implemented a more user-centric method of determining its supposedly binding contract with its users. The deal is that Facebook suggests a new rule for you to follow and as long as 30 percent of its users agree to accept it, it becomes Facebook law. It sounds more user-centric. But the flaws are clear. Facebook will never allow its users to put new rules to a vote or to request a vote to remove them. And it should be easy to force 30 percent of its users to agree to anything. The people who run the site are creative. We should expect to see more clumsy, clownish caricatures of democracy from other corporate online services in the future. However, I fear they may not be the transparent farce that Facebook has proposed.

Cooperative ownership is common in the physical world. Food coops, libraries, various types of cooperative housing, even private business cooperatives all operate on the principle of collective control of resources for the greatest benefit of the interested parties. In order to begin controlling our online lives the way we’ve begun to control our physical ones, we must apply the same principles of cooperation and collective ownership.


Copyright 2009 Brian Duggan

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