Somewhat apropos of what I posted recently about freedoms, there’s been a kerfuffle about Facebook and privacy (again). A particular post I just read kind of set me off, so I decided to expand on a comment I left there.

Assumed rights

This started out as a comment in response to Sorry Facebook, This Was A Privacy Bungle! Here’s What You Should’ve Done, over on ReadWriteWeb. The post wraps up like so:

So this isn’t the fault of Facebook’s users. We knew what we were doing then, when we posted to our Walls. And we know what we’re doing now. The lesson here is that Facebook should have given us the option of selecting the privacy setting for those old Wall posts. Or maybe even made those old posts available to “Close Friends” only, as the default. Then we could adjust if we wished.

Facebook’s mistake was that it had no right to assume that our “Friends” of 2007-09 means the same thing as “Friends” in 2012.

Sorry, but no. The mistake was that you could assume many rights over content you’d submitted into Facebook’s ownership. If you had assumptions of rights or ownership, then in fact you did not know what you were doing then when you posted to your Walls, then or now.

Darth Zuckerberg?

Maybe this whole thing seems a bit Vader-ish. (ie. “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.“)

But, even if your impression was that what you posted back then was “just between us” – the fact is that Facebook has always been well within their rights to alter the definition of “us” at any point they liked. I’d be amazed if the terms of service (which no one reads, of course) didn’t give them plenty of room to do things just like this.

Of course, I’m not a lawyer. But, I can imagine there are things companies put into terms of service that run afoul of actual laws. But, Facebook has lots of money, and that yields lots of incentive to look for legal exploits.

And, accordingly, people have sued and won where Facebook was vulnerable. But, I’m reasonably convinced that voluntarily posting your secrets to Facebook doesn’t come with a legal guarantee of privacy. Maybe a good lawyer (ie. better than those at Facebook) could prove me wrong on this. But otherwise… umm… don’t do that.

It’s not your backyard

You don’t own the spaces you inhabit on Facebook. You’re enjoying a party at someone’s house, and you barely know the guy. In fact, your content is the currency that pays for the booze (ie. the privilege of using their servers). That’s why it’s free-as-in-beer: You’ve given them what you post, instead of money. That’s valuable stuff, if they can ever quite figure out how to sell it.

You and your friends can tell yourselves that your little clique on the quiet patio is a private gathering. But, that’s still not your house. Don’t be surprised if gossip gets overheard.

Richard MacManus wrote that “[Facebook] has unilaterally decided to impose a new concept of privacy onto its users.” But, that’s like saying the homeowner unilaterally decided to put out the bonfire in the backyard. One might ask the guests’ opinion about the bonfire – but that’s just being a gracious host.

A better scenario might be if the homeowner decided to start filming a reality show. Still, I think you agreed to a release at the door. It might have even been printed the plastic cups, and drinking the beer sealed the deal. That release covered this contingency, no matter how intuitively distasteful it seems. (Sounds shady to me, but then so do terms of service pages.)

The cake: eating vs having it

You can’t both pay to party by supplying your content and then later claim ownership of the payment. You ate the cake; you can’t take it home after. You can express your feelings of stomach ache (which is also content), but the lesson here is Facebook never was and never will be a private space. There might have been perceived partitions at one point, but those partitions can move whenever the homeowners want.

Where to go from here

As I see it, you have three options:

  1. Pay to create your own private social spaces on the web. That, at least, makes you the customer.
  2. Accept Facebook for what it is: A party in a stranger’s backyard, at which you are both a guest and the product on sale.
  3. Lobby your lawmakers to outlaw what Facebook does with your content. Good luck.

I’m willing to bet #1 and #2 are cheaper and much more practical than #3.