professional reflections

Facebook wants your attention, not your photos

There has been something of a furore over a recent change to Facebook's terms of service (ToS). The Consumerist reported this as Facebook's New Terms Of Service: "We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.".

The change in question was the removal of a clause stating:

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

[my emphasis]

So, even if I delete my account, any content I have uploaded to Facebook may remain. On the face of it, this sounds unreasonable. And the fact that this alteration to the ToS was made rather quietly is enough to raise a little suspicion. Objections to this change were swift and many. Fittingly, the largest concerted protest was organised within Facebook itself by the group called People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS) (ironically, if you want to read about the risks associated with the new ToS in this Facebook group then you will have to join Facebook as it remains a walled garden). The members of this group (claimed to be 60,000 in number) identified '3 Big Questions for Facebook', which boil down to seeking reassurance that Facebook will not, at some future point, exploit user-generated content for its own profit.

Now, I think it is good that this change in ToS was picked up, challenged, and has now been reversed. Facebook were clearly mistaken if they thought that they could just make this change quietly without an ensuing protest. However I, for one, believe their rationale for making this change in the first place. On the Facebook blog, Mark Zuckerberg justified the change to the ToS:

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. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this more clear.

His comparison to email is, I think, bogus - for this to hold water the world's email would have to reside in one system owned by one company, which it clearly does not. However Facebook is, by dint of its huge user-base if not technical innovation, raising all kinds of issues to do with user-generated content, rights, management etc. It has chosen to try to deal with these issues through a trial-and-error approach which may realistically, be the only way to do so. There is a lot of grey area to be explored here and a change, for example, which allowed users to delete all content which they had ever uploaded to Facebook would have a serious impact on Facebook's architecture and functionality.

Now, I'm certainly not a fan of Facebook. I have yet to find a use for it in my professional life and have criticised before the assumption that, for example, Higher Education should be embracing it as a service because it is widely popular. But I will say that I think the furore about Facebook's 'ownership' of user-generated-content has, by and large, slightly missed the point. There has been wide-spread concern about how Facebook might sell the rights to users' photos for advertising purposes for example. The idea that Facebook would risk the public wrath of users for this kind of business model seems, to me, to be highly unlikely. Frankly, I don't think that Facebook has any business model which revolves around individual user's content. There is only one thing of potential, unproven, value to Facebook and that is the aggregate of users' attention data. Typically, this would cover the data which a system logs about everything the user has visited and/or clicked on. Attention data can be exploited within a system to seed recommendation algorithms, tailoring a user's experience and delivering personalised content to them. In the case of Facebook, attention data could also be derived from user-generated-content (i.e. status updates, news, mail, even other media such as photos) which can be mined for clues about trends in interest and behaviour. We know already that Facebook has sought to monetise this - witness the Beacon debacle of November 2007.

There are certainly some interesting issues to be wrestled with regarding user content in the special context of social networking sites like Facebook. We should be vigilant, as Facebook and the like are by no means clear themselves about how best to manage these issues, and some of their aborted experiments will be harmful to users and their rights. However, in being vigilant, we must ensure that we focus on the real issue. We flatter ourselves if we think Facebook is interested in our uploaded photos from the office party. What they really want is to know what we think, what we like and don't like, what we buy, how we plan to vote….. People will pay large amounts of money for this kind of data.

And I won't even mention the CIA…. ;-)


Sadly, most people would not have looked closely enough to notice the change in Facebook's Terms of Service… looks them social networkers are doing a good job of looking out for each other

[…] paul walk’s weblog « Facebook wants your attention, not your photos […]

[…] considered thoughts was published by my colleague Paul Walk in his post which argued “Facebook wants your attention, not your photos“. Now Paul has admitted “I’m certainly not a fan of Facebook. I have yet to find a […]

Mark & Pat - I agree with both of you. I think this moment represents a sudden collision between the myth of 'delete' and the reality of distributed, collaborative systems. The safety net of license agreements may be proving to be inadequate to the task…

A major concern, to my mind, is that if they are able to make changes like the one they just undid, without notification to users, and which appears to have been intended to apply retroactively to content already submitted under a different agreement then users cannot feel that it is 'safe' to contribute to this type of service. Perhaps this is a timely wake-up call, or perhaps FB would not have got away with it if they had been challenged in court - but if this kind of change is legitimate, there is a real knock-on effect on how people should consider using the service.

I had suspected that the change was due to the fact that they couldn't possibly guarantee the removal of all historic data for an individual. This is probably more difficult with the more recent changes to the functionality where user data, in particular comments and photos, no longer clearly belong to an individual. I think Mark Zuckerberg was alluding to this in his justification. I can see that due to the massive amounts of data and relations between the data that are being built up, deleting an individual while still maintaining data integrity falls into the category of extremely non-trivial and makes me appreciate how lucky I am that I can sue the “delete cascade=true” option :) The amount of optimisation that they must use to deal with the massive infrastructure ( must be mind boggling. Then of course I could be secretly funded by the CIA. I expect to see a return of this TOC in a more friendly guise where exactly what data may be retained and what will be removed is clarified.

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