The social media bill of rights

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

The good people at the annual Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference this year put together something of a "Bill of Rights" for users of social networking sites. I'm going to go ahead and call it a cute idea, because mostly the "rights" assume that the point of putting together a social networking site is to let users do whatever they want.

In case you've been living in a socialist economy since the advent of the Internet, the truth is that social networking sites exist to sell highly targeted advertising and provide companies with very specific information about users.

No, really – that's the truth.

I can get on board with some of the 14 ideas the conference put forth, but not all of them. Not even most of them. Here we go:

1. Honesty: Honor your privacy policy and terms of service.

This, for me, is a no-brainer. The only agreement you (as the owner of a social networking site) and I make when I sign up for your service is that I accept your privacy policy and terms of service. If you don't stick to it, you've broken our agreement.

2. Clarity: Make sure that policies, terms of service, and settings are easy to find and understand.

When I first got started on Twitter, the Terms of Service was short and easy to understand. And it probably wouldn't have done them a lick of good if they had wound up in court for any reason. It's not like we're a litigious society or anything.

So now it looks like this. At least they have tips in there so you can understand it, unlike Facebook's (scroll to the bottom of that and look at how long the list of associated documents is!).

I have to be on the side of social media companies on this, though. If you don't like the terms, don't sign up. If you can't understand them, don't sign up. When you check that box, you're agreeing to those terms. If you don't understand your mortgage and you sign it anyway, you're still responsible for everything in it. Which is why you hire a real estate lawyer. If you really want to be part of Facebook's community but you don't understand the contract you're signing, hire a lawyer to explain it to you. Seriously.

3. Freedom of speech: Do not delete or modify my data without a clear policy and justification.

Let's be clear on this: The U.S. Constitution gives us freedom of speech. That means we can say whatever we want (with a few exceptions). As someone who used to deal with feedback from a large website with a social media component, your right to say whatever you want does not mean someone has to publish it. When the terms of service say, "We have a right to remove whatever we want, with or without cause or explanation," that's what it means. The network can just take something down because it wants to. Deal. You signed the contract, remember?

4. Empowerment: Support assistive technologies and universal accessibility.

This is just a smart move for networks. If you can make your network easy for people to use, they'll use it. That means that if someone with a disability can't use your site, she's not going to use it. If you want everybody to use your site, make it so everybody can use it.

That's not a users' rights thing, that's a smart business decision. If you run a dry cleaner and you have three steps leading up to your door and the dry cleaner next door has a ramp, who's going to get the business from anybody who can't walk steps?

5. Self-protection: Support privacy-enhancing technologies.

This runs entirely counter to why social networks exist. If you as a user need privacy, stay off of social networks.

6. Data minimization: Minimize the information I am required to provide and share with others.

Again, this is not why social networks exist. If you don't want to share information, don't share it. If you want to share it with some people but not others, don't accept those others' friend requests. It's not brain surgery.

7. Control: Let me control my data, and don't facilitate sharing it unless I agree first.

I'm in conditional support of this one. If the terms of service or privacy policy tells me what I can control and what is automatically shared, it's up to me to decide whether I'm comfortable enough to join your network. If you change the rules of the game in the middle, though, I take big issue with it – this is what Facebook did, and it's why my profile is nearly empty and you can't write on my wall.

8. Predictability: Obtain my prior consent before significantly changing who can see my data.

This is essentially what I said above in #7. If you're going to change the rules significantly, give me an opportunity to decide whether I want to play by them before you force me into it.

9. Data portability: Make it easy for me to obtain a copy of my data.

Let's get this straight: Social networks are not your personal thumb drive. No joke. If you want a copy of your information, make a copy. If Flickr went away tomorrow, would you lose all your family photos? If the answer is yes, back them up yourself. Flickr should not have to play nice with your hard drive, or with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any other business it isn't partnered with. Otherwise, what's the point of competition?

10. Protection: Treat my data as securely as your own confidential data unless I choose to share it, and notify me if it is compromised.

Emm, no. If you don't want to share something, don't share it. It's easy not to join a network: just don't sign up. See how easy that was?

11. Right to know: Show me how you are using my data and allow me to see who and what has access to it.

Every social networking site already does this. If you read the user agreement, privacy policy, and terms of service, you should know this information. If you didn't, you shouldn't have agreed to them when you signed up for the site.

12. Right to self-define: Let me create more than one identity and use pseudonyms. Do not link them without my permission.

I disagree here, for the protection of the social networks, who are held responsible if they allow, say, a sex offender to contact a minor. The terms of service of most sites basically say, "You agree that the information you provide is truthful." If it's not, they have a good reason to refuse service to you as a customer.

13. Right to appeal: Allow me to appeal punitive actions.

This would be reasonable business sense, and many sites do allow users to appeal punitive actions. Twitter and LinkedIn do, for sure.

14. Right to withdraw: Allow me to delete my account, and remove my data.

You shouldn't join any social network that doesn't allow you to remove your data. Before iMeem was picked up by MySpace, it didn't let you delete your account, and they made that very clear in the terms of service and also on the help page, in case you didn't read the terms of service before you agreed to them. But they did let you delete the data. Same with Blue Goose News – while I couldn't delete my account there, I was able to delete my blog posts, my name, my email address and anything else that identified me. That was in their terms and I knew it when I signed up.

It all comes down to smart consumerism. If you don't like the way a business operates, don't patronize it.

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