On Facebook, People Own and Control Their Information (Except When Facebook Does)

Now that the NY Times has picked up the story about Facebook changing their terms of service, effecitvely removing mention that the license users grant Facebook to use their content expires if users remove said content, Facebook has issued a statement on the matter.

In a blog post titled “On Facebook, People Own and Control Their Information”, Mark Zuckerberg repeats that Facebook’s philosophy is that “people own their information and control who they share it with.” This is followed by an example of when users don’t have control of their information:

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work.

This is a valid example, but fails to address what most people are concerned about. Few would argue that Facebook should delete all wall posts or messages from a user who decides to leave the service. However, if a user decides to remove a photo she had previously uploaded, it is reasonable to expect that any license granted to Facebook for the use of that photo would also be revoked. The user made a specific action to take that information out of the ecosystem, and Facebook should acknowledge that.

Zuckerberg continues down another angle (which I think is tangentially addressing some of the nuances of their advertising platform), arguing that no system gives users full control over their information flows:

People want full ownership and control of their information so they can turn off access to it at any time. At the same time, people also want to be able to bring the information others have shared with them—like email addresses, phone numbers, photos and so on—to other services and grant those services access to those people’s information. These two positions are at odds with each other. There is no system today that enables me to share my email address with you and then simultaneously lets me control who you share it with and also lets you control what services you share it with.

First, I don’t think these two positions are necessarily at odds with each other. People want to be able to share information, to build on information they’ve received, and at the same time (and perhaps even as a result), have control over the flow and access to that very information. This is increasingly important because of the kind of information Facebook deals with: personal, identifiable, perhaps even private information.

Second, I’m not sure how much people want to “bring the information others have shared with them….to other services and grant those services access.” Perhaps I’m not in tune with what’s going on out there, but I don’t see a huge push for people to take phone numbers and photos from Facebook and then use them on a different platform. Am I missing something here?

And third, Zuckerberg claims there is “no system today that enables” sharing of information while also controlling the flow of that information. Well, there are social systems that do this quite well, such as the contextual norms that dictate how medical information I share with my doctor shouldn’t be spread amongst her friends over coffee, or that my spouse isn’t sharing intimate details of our lives with others.

The problem here is the Facebook thinks it can have a philosophy that “people own their information and control who they share it with” and claim that “we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want”, while at the same time arguing that no system can exist that successfully enables both sharing and control. By arguing they need to retain their license to your content even after you want the content removed from the system, and by couching this in terms of the belief that “no system can really let you conrol your information”, Facebook’s philosophy seems little more than lip service.

Once again, Facebook’s attempt to “clarify” an issue is unsatisfying.

::UPDATE – see more excellent commentary by Daniel Solove at Concurring Opinions.

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