Mark Zuckerberg is answering the wrong question, and we fell for it again

There has been quite a bit of uproar about Facebook changing their Terms of Service. Unfortunately, no one is asking the right question, thus letting Mark get away with answering the wrong one. The section that created this uproar reads:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof. You represent and warrant that you have all rights and permissions to grant the foregoing licenses.

In other word. Anything you publish on Facebook can be used by Facebook. TechMeme sees a large number of replies to this change and this forces Mark Zuckerberg to write a post explaining Facebook’s motives. He writes:

Our philosophy is that people own their information and control who they share it with. When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn’t help people share that information.

[stuff deleted...]

Still, the interesting thing about this change in our terms is that it highlights the importance of these issues and their complexity. 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.

Mark tries to explain the complexity that arises when users start sharing information. He explains that this TOS change is needed to allow users to have access to shared information , even when the original sender/sharer has deleted his or her account. In other words, if I share a photo with you, and I decide to delete my account, should you then not have access to that photo anymore?

While Mark does a good job explaining this process and it’s complexities I cannot help but feel that the blogging community has let Mark get away with answering the wrong question. He has done a perfect job in avoiding a much more important privacy issue than the issue that arises when two people share information via Facebook.

The questions Mark should have answered are the following:

What exactly does Facebook do with all the user data has been collected on Facebook, and how exactly does it monetize that, even after a user has deleted his or her account?

I could care less about the information I share with others via Facebook. That sharing process is a conscious act. I know that if I share that whatever gets shared is out of my control.  What I do not know is what Facebook does with that information. Why do they tap into all of my interactions and my data? What do they store, and how do they monetize that exactly? If I set my privacy settings as strict as possible do they still see everything? How is that data being used outside of Facebook? Do 3rd parties get access to that information as well, even if I do not want them too?

The problem at hand isn’t users sharing things on Facebook. It isn’t even controlling privacy on Facebook. The problem is that I do not have a clue or option to protect myself from Facebook. Any service that monetizes user data and interactions indirectly using a free but advertisement business model puts the value of the network in front of the value of the individual user. You get a free service, but you do not know exactly what you are giving up for that. And that is what Mark should be explaining. The rest is just a decoy so that the really difficult questions do not need to be answered.

I might not even mind that Facebook monetizes my user data, my friends, and my interactions. But right now, I don’t know how Facebook uses that data.We might think that our online lives are not connected to our real lives. We might even think that privacy is dead. But the problem is not that privacy is dead, but that it is distributed unevenly. In other words, the user is forced into total transparency when signing up for services like Facebook. But the service itself lacks transparency. There is no way we are going to find out what Facebook does with us. And it is this unbalanced relationship that we should be worried about. Mark Zukcerberg does a great job answering the wrong question, and we all fell for it again.

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23 Responses to Mark Zuckerberg is answering the wrong question, and we fell for it again

  1. mellyreed says:

    If the kind of ads I’ve been seeing are any indication,the answer to your question is: yes. They do use that private information for allowing “paying” customers (and they do pay a bundle to target demographic information in their ads to promote their FB pages.) FB pages have many advantages over FB groups with one notable exception: you can’t invite people to your page like you can your group. So how do you drive traffic there? Ads. There is a workaround but its a bit messy.

  2. @mellyreed, I realise Facebook does advertisement. But we do not know the depths of the measures they are really taking with our user data and interactions. I believe they should be very explicit on that.

  3. mellyreed says:

    I would also like to add that FB isn’t the only one who are forming these “unique” business models. There are some CMS/GLS in the education world who use what some might call questionable business models from the end user perspective. these models cater most to the “paying” customer who licenses such (the institution). Again, one’s personal data is somewhat up for grabs by those that pay.

  4. mellyreed says:

    @alexander Strangely, I don’t think they know either. By that I mean, I think they are making it up as they go along. I don’t mean that in a humorous fashion. I mentioned to one other forum the “wild west” aspect of Internet Law or least the idea of the frontier. It strikes me that they have appointed themselves the “Sheriff of Dodge City” and their rules, arbitrary as they might seem, are what goes until they “refine” the model. It gives them the unique advantage of protecting themselves totally as the process of works itself out. Do I agree with that? Now we come to it: what real leg do I have? I am using a number of their wonderful services for free. Do I now want to pay per service so I can have absolute control over my information? That would have some undesirable effects for both Facebook and ourselves.

  5. @Mellyreed facebook is the biggest of them and they should lead by example. And to say they don’t know it, is naive imo. Facebook is obviously experimenting with business models, and they do have a clear strategy in leveraging user data and interactions. As a user I don’t know what that is. I’m signing up for something and I don’t know how my data is (ab) used.

  6. Once again Alexander, you beat me to the punch and did a better job of expounding on it that I could have hoped to! I read Zuckerberg’s response today and immediately though he answered the most benign and inconsequential of the questions that could be raised. I’ll be writing a follow-up to the controversy this evening.

  7. Alexander – I’m less worried about Facebook’s intentions and actions. The fact that they are so public, and that user trust is so critical to their growth and engagement, is an important moral lever there.

    Facebook is huge, across the world. They are scrutinized continuously. They want to go public one day. These factors are why I’m less concerned about their policies.

    Here’s a question. My attitude may come across as typically American, in that I have this market orientation toward the issue. Fair to say that privacy concerns have more of regulatory philosophy in Europe?

  8. @Hutch there are many companies that are follwed critically by the public but this recent financial and now economic crisis has shown that this is no guarantee to do the right thing.

    I wonder why Facebook needs such a far-stretching TOS. Mark’s response talking about users sharing stuff doesn’t provide any insight in why this is needed. Read this post by Amanda French who compared different TOSses ike the one from MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook. Bottom line: you get screwed.
    http://bit.ly/tJJBK

    Wrt to your question about the attitude of the US versus Europe. I do not believe it has anything at all to do with regulatory. I do believe that in Europe the individual rights of human beings are given higher priority in the area of privacy. Maybe because of history (WW 1 and 2). At the same time the US recently has experienced a terrorist attack that is unprecedented, which has lead to far-stretching consequences for individual privacy. It is hard to say what causes these possible differences in atttitude.
    In the end I always support thinking that lets the individual user be in control. And that is simply not the case with Facebook (or Google for that matter). It is naive to believe that these companies will be lead by public opinion.
    I would suggest they become as transparent about their intentions and monetization as we are forced to give up our privacy. If that is balanced again then I might trust them. Until that balance is restored I will remain very critical and I will not trust them to do the right thing at all.

  9. Webomatica says:

    Yes, you hit the nail on the head as far as my feelings as well: “Any service that monetizes user data and interactions indirectly using a free but advertisement business model puts the value of the network in front of the value of the individual user.” – Facebook really strikes me as a company that isn’t putting the interest of the user first, anymore (if they ever did). I won’t speculate as to the reasons why, but I know personally, I don’t care to be a customer of businesses that have gone astray of this basic concept of putting the user / customer first.

  10. Pingback: Is Mark Zuckerberg answering the right question about Facebook? | socialmediaonline.biz

  11. Alexander – one follow-up. I look at European privacy regulations as an outcome of a different mindset that exists in America. Frankly, we could use some of that here. But we do have a strong market orientation toward addressing privacy, and I’m generally comfortable with that.

  12. @Jason (webomatica ;-) ) that is a direct result of their chosen business model. That business model doesn’t put the user first. It is, in general, not a good business model imo

  13. Jack Wilson says:

    Alexander,

    I think you are spot on for pointing this out. This is something that each of us as social media devotees should be asking the people that provide our social media experience.

    There is a struggle between copyright and freedom of information, but that does not diminish the responsibility of the companies to explain to us exactly how they are using our information and to give us a option to opt-out and keep our information private if we should choose.

    Like you, I don’t see this as a U.S./Europe thing at all. This is something that concerns all of us using social media.

    @mellyreed I tend to agree with you. It seems to be a “Wild West” environment out there as far as social media is concerned, but I don’t see that as a stumbling block to keeping users informed and companies to be transparent with what they are doing with our data. In fact the fact that there is not a lot of case law at this point on Internet Law, I would think companies would fall all over themselves to be transparent, least someone file a lawsuit and win a bunch of money on a point of law that had not existed previously.

  14. Eliot Frick says:

    With all due respect (and I really do mean that – you’re clearly a thoughtful and intelligent character), the tenor of your post strikes me as demagogy. To wit:

    “You get a free service, but you do not know exactly what you are giving up for that. And that is what Mark should be explaining. The rest is just a decoy so that the really difficult questions do not need to be answered.”

    Facebook has a business model that, I would strongly suspect, is still to some degree inchoate. That you would bring such concerns to the fore seems useful, but it is difficult to come away from your post without the sense that you are invoking some sort of hidden diabolism. Am I to infer that you are imputing disingenuousness to Mr. Zuckerberg’s response? If you are, you may as well give up your crusade post haste, because if you’re correct that he’s not acting in good faith, no amount of appeal to moral principle will have any effect — and if you’re wrong in that assertion, you’ve effectively libeled the man and would be foolish to expect he would feel any compunction in ignoring you.

    “The rest is just a decoy so that the really difficult questions do not need to be answered.”

    You know this because? You can penetrate the intentions of the Facebook founder?

    I am given to the notion that the participants in social media are still ungoverned by some mutually received sense of civility. Motrin Moms and countless shrill Facebook groups beating their drums. It is possible, I submit, to lodge a complaint without playing to people’s fears and working them into a lather.

    I’ve long contended that the “democratization of the communications culture” is an experiment that can recapitulate—metaphorically speaking—either the American or French revolutions. For my part, I’d like to avoid all that guillotine business.

  15. @Elliot, I’ve written a lot about Facebook and similar services. My personal belief (and that is all they are, nothing more) is that when a company chooses a free but advertisement based business model, it is automatically forced to base its value on the network, not on providing individual users value. In other words. Facebook earns revenues by putting all efforts in making the network as large as possible. As a natural consequence of this, the individual rights of a user are less important than the business objective.
    What makes this difficult is that the average user doesn’t fully understand this. He signs up for a fun service to connect with friends. What Facebook then doesn’t explain is that:
    1) They get to own everything
    2) They track and trace all your movements and that of your friends
    3) They commercialise you, your data, your friends and your interactions, and it is very unclear how far this actually goes.

    A good example of this is the Beacon project that created an uproar last year.

    I am concerned that users are not aware of this, and that Facebook isn’t clear about it either. It is this lack of transparency that I do not like. And Mark Zuckerberg may honestly be a nice guy and even mean well with his TOS explanation. But he knows very well that the basis of his monetization scheme is to own everything we do on Facebook and sell that to the highest bidder. I can live with that if a user can make a conscious decision that he is fine with that. But I suspect that out of the 150M people 60-70% isn’t aware of this at all.

    Anyways, a long explanation to address your comment. These are my views only, and what do I know? I’m just a dude from Holland thinking out loud here ;-)

  16. Eliot Frick says:

    In case it wasn’t clear, I think the objections you raise are interesting and useful. My response was meant to address the imputation of malfeasance. I would hope that a good faith conversation about concerns such as those you address here is more potent when unalloyed with accusation.

    Please forgive any appearance of scolding. As I mentioned, you seem a very knowledgeable fellow possessing insights from which I might be edified; and I, for my part, am rather full of error. I merely found in your post an occasion to note my concern with the populist impulse that social media seems to stoke.

  17. @Elliot, no worries at all. There is nothing to be forgiven. Glad you dropped by to ventilate your opinion ;-)

  18. Pingback: The Facebook business model is the root cause of a lack of transparency « Alexander van Elsas’s Weblog on new media & technologies and their effect on social behavior

  19. Pingback: StevieB’s Shared Items - February 18, 2009 at Lost in Cyberspace

  20. Jack Wilson says:

    Apparently Facebook has heard the cries. In this post http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=54746167130

    Mark Zuckerberg is announcing that Facebook is reverting to the previous TOS.

  21. Pingback: Did Facebook Just Forgo a Big Revenue Stream? « I’m Not Actually a Geek

  22. Joe says:

    It makes no sense that Facebook would risk messing up a good thing by edging in on people’s intellectual property. They had people’s trust and then they go and risk losing it; not smart.

  23. Pingback: Data Privacy, Data Ownership and Who You Trust « I’m Not Actually a Geek

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