Azer Bestavros
Department of Computer Science
College of Arts & Sciences
Boston University

Office: 111 Cummington Street, MCS-276, Boston, MA 02215
Tel: 617.353.9726 / Fax: 617.353.6457 / Email: best

Does Facebook Own You?

In early 2009, Facebook decided to change their "Terms of Use" (a.k.a. the fine prints that nobody bothers to read). Basically, Facebook deleted a provision allowing users to remove their content from the site at any time, and added words to the effect that Facebook would hold onto user content even if the content creator/contributor closed his or her account. This move resulted in a huge backlash from Facebook's user community, including a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission, and sparked a debate over "ownership of content created through on-line social interactions", including coverage in BU Today.

Even more recent changes in Facebook's practices have emerged in the last couple of months (e.g., changing the system so as to not allow users to keep certain information private with respect to search) -- changes that Facebook advocates as being "for your own good" by stating in its privacy guide that “Making connections — finding people you know, learning about people, searching for what people are saying about topics that interest you — is at the core of our product. This can only happen when people make their information available and choose to share more openly.”

Here are a couple of questions that I hope to hear from the class about (feel free to comment on any or both or other questions):

(1) Who do you think should "own" content contributed to a social forum such as Facebook? On the one hand, it could be argued that each user is entitled to remove whatever they contribute to a forum (e.g., a Facebook Wall or a discussion blog). On the other hand, it could be argued that such contributions only make sense in the context of other contributions and thus it is not clear who owns what, making the provider of the forum (e.g., Facebook) the natural owner.

(2) Is it the case (and should we worry) that our society is becoming more accepting of "less privacy"? To put it in Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's words "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that's evolved over time." Is this change a good thing? Can it be reversible? Is it healthy for societal values to be "mutated" as a result of technological innovations (or for that matter, other reasons such as the threat of terrorism)?

Follow-up Post: The End of Secrets

In answering a question about why Facebook is interested in information that seems very personal and perhaps useless (such as posting on somebody's wall that you liked a particular movie, or that you bought a particular product), here is a quote from the "Facebook: The end of secrets" article:

A slightly less ominous effect of lost privacy, something called “price discrimination,” is already a reality.  Retailers have run numerous tests to hone the fine art of overcharging people who say they like something. For example: die-hard Coldplay fans are almost certainly likely to pay more for a new album than casual fans.  Most won’t notice when their music retailer of choice slips in a $1 or $2 fan premium.

So, information that you and I (and millions others) put out there is valuable -- if not to Facebook then to others.

Let's say I decide to delete a piece of information, does that mean that its value is no more? Of course not. Removing a Facebook wall posting in which I said "I like X" does not mean that I stopped liking X. Besides, the act of "deleting" information may itself be valuable (or more valuable that the information itself.

Perhaps more importantly is the fact that the information I provide is embedded in a particular context (so it is not just about me, but about that context). For example, if I like X, then perhaps some of my friends may like X too (think about marketing, advertising, recommendations, ...) Or, as the article suggested, if I like X (or search for Y, or read Z) then perhaps I am likely "to come to work late" (or have specific political inclinations, or sexual preferences, etc.)

By the way, even if I don't provide the information in the first place, the information that my friends provide may do the trick. For example, if I don't devulge my age on Facebook, it is fairly easy to guess what it is by looking at the ages of those classmates of mine who elect to provide theirs. If my friends later on delete that information, it does not mean that it seizes to be valuable! Somehow, I am not in control of my own privacy anymore.

Facebook aside, even when you do a Google or Bing search, you are providing valuable information that is *stored* and monetized! Incidentally, just yesterday, there was a news bulletin about Microsoft agreeing to the European Union's demand (out of privacy concerns) that it limits how long it keeps information about the identity of users along side the search phrases they used in Bing. Here is a link to that:

Follow-up Post: On Facebook New Privacy Settings

The New York Times has a good article outlining the privacy settings you may wish to look at. I am quoting below the "Note" at the end of that article, which has a number of nice pointers pertaining to this thread.

Note: Other resources on Facebook's latest changes worth reading include MakeUseOf's 8 Steps Toward Regaining your Privacy, 17 steps to protect your privacy from Inside Facebook, the ACLU's article examining the changes, and's comprehensive analysis of the new settings. If you're unhappy enough to protest Facebook's privacy update, you can sign ACLU's petition. The FTC is also looking into the matter thanks to a complaint filed by a coalition of privacy groups, led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. You can add your voice to the list of complaints here.

BTW, if you are curious about what all those innocent applications, games, quizzes, etc. can find out about you and your friends, check the following app by the ACLU entitled "What Do Quizzes Really Know About You?"