Data Privacy, Data Ownership and Who You Trust
February 23, 2009 4 Comments
In the recent imbroglio over what exactly Facebook was saying in its (now-reversed) updated Terms of Service (TOS), I found myself on the opposite side of a lot of smart people in terms of what it meant. There was a lot of concern that Facebook was essentially claiming the right to commercialize any content its members uploaded to the social network. As I said in a couple posts, it didn’t strike me that way.
In other words, I didn’t think the terms or the intent matched the hyperbole I was seeing.
So I ask why was I so sanguine while others were so worried? Jeremiah Owyang asked readers whether they had deleted their Facebook accounts. The most common response seems to be that they removed their photos, although I don’t expect that reaction to be the norm. Personally, I’ll keep uploading photos without concern.
Why? It’s not about the terms. It’s about trust. I trust Facebook.
We All Trust Companies of Some Type
In order to live in society, we have to trust companies. If you didn’t, you’d never buy anything, or you’d spend a lot of time carefully inspecting everything you purchase. We don’t do that of course.
Quickly, here’s why I trust Facebook, no matter the interpretation of their TOS:
- Established company with an imperfect, but acceptable rack record
- Companies that want to be profitable and go public don’t trash their relationship with 175 million members
- In the event Facebook ever started unilaterally using and selling its members’ content, the backlash would be 1,000,000 times greater than the Motrin Moms episode
I have no reason to distrust Facebook. Others apparently do. I sort of understand that, although no one who expressed their suspicions of Facebook could give an actual example of how the social network has done them harm. I think for a lot of people, this Facebook TOS story was a vehicle to vent their general concerns about social networks and the tension of making our personal info public. People like to participate in social media, but there’s always this dark side of concern in the back of their minds of what people will do with that info. Or it’s front of mind for a vocal minority.
In a previous job at biometric company Pay By Touch, I remember these concerns well. There was an understandable concern about some private company holding your biometric, personal and financial information. And yet plenty of people did participate.
Clearly, Facebook does have some work to continue building out people’s trust in the site. But as people watch Facebook, I thought it’d be instructive to look at the the terms of service for some other popular products and services that people use.
The idea here is to ask whether you are skeptical of Facebook but using other services that seem to have as much potential for violating data privacy and data ownership. If you’re not questioning these other services, why not?
Notice the similarities in those clauses. Facebook’s TOS looks like it used Google’s TOS as a starter. The Facebook TOS story started on the news that the site had dropped two lines saying they no longer had such a license when you quit Facebook. By dropping those lines, it appeared they were claiming a license to your IP forever.
Yet the controversy I saw was less on that issue, and more on concerns that Facebook intended to grab all users’ content and start commercializing it. Let me put it another way. It wasn’t like bloggers said, “As long as you’re a member of Facebook, you’re fine letting them commercialize your content without your permission. Only consider that an issue when you quit Facebook.” No, it became an intellectual property issue, regardless of whether you are a current member or have quit.
Google has similar terms. Yet Google doesn’t face the same issue for having essentially the same terms as Facebook. Why?
Safeway Club Card
You may have a loyalty card with your local grocer. I do – the Safeway Club Card. If you don’t use a Club Card, you pay a higher shelf price for many products. Gotta get that discount!
So Safeway is collecting name, address info and purchase history for its shoppers – via the Club Card and online. Let’s see what Safeway’s privacy terms look like:
Really, not too bad, eh? Sure, your private information may end up in the hands of third parties, but it doesn’t appear to be to commercialize it. But check out that second-to-last paragraph. Safeway will hang on to your private information for as long as it deems necessary. Sort of like Facebook.
If you wanted to stir it up with Safeway, you’d blog something like: “What’s to stop Safeway from sharing your purchase history with insurance companies? Buy too many fatty snack foods? We’re raising your insurance rates!”
Yet we continue to shop at Safeway, and no one raises its TOS as an issue. Why?
Chase Credit Card
I love my Chase credit card. I get 5% back on groceries and gas. Great program. And most people have at least one credit card.
Chase will share information about you with outside companies. In other words, you do not have complete control over your own transaction information. Even if you indicate a preference for your information not to be shared, it still will be made available to others. Kudos to Chase for its notification policy though, if they “broaden their information sharing practices.”
Still, aren’t you worried about this? All those purchases you’ve made that maybe you don’t want to the world to know about? They could end up sold to the highest bidder! Well, no, that won’t happen.
But certainly Chase’s policy contains elements that should scare people the way Facebook’s TOS did. Yet we continue to use our credit cards. Why?
Who Are You Trusting Right Now?
I had an energetic discussion about this with several people in a FriendFeed thread. After that, I’ve come to this conclusion:
If you trust a company, it doesn’t matter what their terms of service are.
If you don’t trust a company, it doesn’t matter what their terms of service are.
So why the ongoing distrust of Facebook. That’s a topic worthy of exploration. I’ve seen two plausible explanations out there.
Alexander Van Elsas says that the lack of clarity about Facebook’s ultimate revenue model injects uncertainty into its relationship with its members. In other words, it’s hard to be certain the company won’t lurch into some egregious territory with members’ content. I think there’s some truth in that, particularly for those tracking the industry closely.
In her interview with Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, Sarah Lacy asks whether Facebook is bumping into issues caused by its being at the leading edge of social networking. I think there’s truth here too. Grocery loyalty cards that track your spending are not without some controversy. Credit cards are not immune either. I imagine when these programs were first introduced, there was a lot of concern about privacy and data ownership.
How about you? Who are you trusting today with your personal information?
See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?required=q&q=%22Data+Privacy%22+%22Data+Ownership%22+%22Who+You+Trust%22