Monday, February 16

Defending Facebook's Right To Own Your Bad High School Photos

Facebook set off its annual User Outcry Event, this time over an update of its usage policy providing it ownership of any content you upload to the site. Even if you delete it. Even after you cancel your account and leave the site.

Every year founder Mark Zuckerberg announces something that pisses off the Facebook masses. Whether it is notifying your friends whenever you do something on your personal page (eventually accepted and embraced), notifies your friends when you do something on other websites (the short-lived Beacons initiative), or just changes the design of their site (1.4 million users apparently still hate them over that). Not surprising 2 of these 3 are privacy related.

Personally I don’t see the point to the current outcry over the obvious: You upload your content to their site. They store it on their web servers. They allow you to share this content with others on their site. Just because you are emotionally attached to it doesn’t mean the site can’t lay claim to it.

Here’s a spoiler alert = There is no privacy on the Internet.

Facebook initially was a place to find and communicate with others. Now it has evolved into a place to share content as well. And most of this content is deeply personal in a puppies and babies scrapbook kind-of-way.

But let’s be honest: 68 million people used Facebook last month. Unless you are famous now – or fall into famousness in the future -- your stuff really isn’t that important to them. The long tail of vacation photos and 25 Things About You doesn’t stop at your profile page.

But there are some open questions. What about Facebook apps that import content from other sites? You can embed Youtube videos to show off your home movies. Use the Flickr widget to present your wedding photos. Import status posts from your Twitter account. Technically all this content resides on other web sites. Can Facebook lay claim to those?

The knee-jerk expectation is that they will use your content in their own advertising. Any ad agency will tell you that is sooooo 2008. Brands already troll YouTube to produce cheap TV ads (Vonage, KFC, Hampton Inn, Geico). That fad is over.

Maybe they plan on publishing a photobook of bad hair from the 80’s. Or sell t-shirts reprinting funny status quotes. It would be one thing if they wanted to own unique creative content – such as when virtual worlds World of Warcraft and Second Life tried to lay claim to virtual items created by their users.

So if they can’t really monetize your stuff, or use it as cheap marketing material, why do they want it? At some point it might be valuable. Any web site desperate for a revenue model needs to cover their bases.

Nothing dies on the Internet. Any content you put online can be found, archived, and stored by web crawlers. Retrieved at any time via search engines. The fact that Facebook saves your content, even after you delete it and cancel your account, means that at some point they could make it publicly searchable and even sell access to it.

This goes beyond just text (such as your status posts and About Me info). Photo recognition technology is here and companies like Google are ready to take advantage of it. Not to mention these photos are already tagged with your name by all your so-called friends. Just wait until your kids start searching for photos of you circa the year College Keg Party. This may be the most serious threat to your personal privacy. Those of you who participated in Cuss In Your Status Day can start sweating now.

Facebook users love to complain and faux protest whenever the mothership steps on their toes. Usually by starting up a protest group ON FACEBOOK. Which I guess means Facebook owns any complaints about themselves. Those self-serving bastards.

Will this cause a mass exit to the next up-and-coming social network site? I doubt it. Friendster is the best case study for this scenario. It lost a majority of its user base to MySpace in two weeks, primarily because their site kept breaking. But also because its users were primarily teenagers and twenty-somethings, who have no problem spontaneously jumping ship and starting anew.

But over the last year Facebook’s demographics has skewed to 30+ yrs old. These old timers can be very lazy online. Set up a new account on a different site and re-upload all my photos? That sounds time consuming. Re-friend 175 people? That’s a pain in the ass.

I predict the fury will be short lived and cause minimal long-term damage to Facebook’s user base. Soon we’ll all get back to listing our random iPod songs and the third sentence on page 56, inviting friends to our birthday party event, and revenge-tagging photos. But don’t be surprised if you see me wearing a t-shirt featuring your prom photo and that hilarious status post about Congress Stimulating Your Package.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was amazed how quickly the retraction happened and good for FB, but and i was of a very similar mind to this whole thing.

I've met and am friends with a lot of folks who for no reason at all or for very legitimate reasons we're pissed off about a TOS update that they would never have discovered themselves.

The best argument i've heard so far is from a friend that does indeed produce illustrations that he sells to others, but in theory the copyright is *already held* by someone else, so how does someone like FB claim usage rights for it?

In the end my opinion is that a TOS is like a EULA. Have any of these ever been successful defended in an an actual court? Has an EULA or TOS passively accepted by millions of users ever constituted an agreement between two parties that favors the corporate interest over the individual?