Friday, December 24, 2010

The Digital Social Contract and Social Media

Have you ever read Facebook's End User License Agreement? If not, you should definitely do that. It's refreshingly accessible as EULAs and other legal documents go, largely in response to criticisms that their privacy settings are too byzantine to be fair to the average person.

Aww, still don't feel like going through it? Allow me to highlight two important points:

From Section 2., "Privacy": "You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings."

From Section 14., "Termination": "If you violate the letter or spirit of this Statement, or otherwise create risk or possible legal exposure for us, we can stop providing all or part of Facebook to you."

So. Theoretically, I am the sole owner of my data, but access to my data can be cut off at any time if it is believed that I've violated "the spirit" of the agreement. But Delicious' Terms of Use are even better: "Delicious reserves the right to terminate your license to use Delicious at any time and for any reason..." Okay, fine. That looks obnoxious, but honestly, if they went around cancelling accounts for no good reason, they would have a bloody hard time getting people to sign on and give them more of their super valuable info. That's sort of a natural logic of any contract.

Now, my friend Greg linked me to this Harvard Business Review blog update on the rumors that Yahoo is planing on pulling the plug on Delicious.

Ms. Samuel is right on the mark. She writes about the transaction between Delicious and its users, referring to the relationship between two people using information stored on Delicious to communicate, saying that,
We've placed those relationships in trust, along with the information about which websites we find useful enough to store, and which keywords we use to describe them. We contribute the content and relationships; Yahoo! contributes the software and servers. (Emphasis mine)

Interestingly, she uses some bank terms here. Which makes sense. For the purpose of web 2.0 services, information is currency. It's an apt parallel; We place funds in trust with a bank, and they use those funds to generate more capital. We also place our information in trust with the fine folks of Google, Facebook and Yahoo so that they can generate value in the form of "free" web applications.

As trustees of that informational currency, there is a certain obligation to maintain the value of what's been entrusted to Delicious (or Facebook, or any other online service that is paid for with informational currency). Because we have the right to close a Delicious or Facebook account at any time, I can accept the idea that they may want to stop offering the service, but a way of preserving the value which has already been generated by the information entrusted to them is highly important. Like any social or legal contract, if you prove unreliable, one one's going to want to contract with you again. So remarking that cancelling a service indicates poor customer service, it's not "personal" as Ms. Samuel suggested her comments may have been construed as-it's a poor way of doing business. Data can be backed up and access to that data can be maintained without continuing to offer the service; Yahoo should do so if these rumors turn out to have any truth to them.

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