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Who Owns Your Online Content?

With the massive outbreak of web sites that work on user generated content, issues regarding ownership of such content have started to shake things up. Who controls all this information in a world of search engines, social networking, and a culture of online sharing? As web sites of the so called web 2.0 revolution, such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube are struggling to come up with a sustainable revenue model, it’s natural for them to cast a net and grapple for every last bit of your information. Perhaps it’ll be of some use or value someday, is what they probably reason. A recent example of this was when Facebook decided to make changes to their Terms of Service document which granted them rights to all your content, forever — even after you’ve left the service. Why do they want this content? All these traces you leave behind help Facebook and others build a valuable database of your likes and dislikes. This treasure trove of information has got to be worth a lot to marketers.

A huge uproar was raised about the issue by consumer rights groups and strangely enough, communities within Facebook itself sprung up to protest the subject. Facebook quickly turned tail and issued statements saying it’ll come up with a reworked document. It’s definitely not a solution, but at least it’s a temporary salve. The larger question here still needs to be answered. Who owns all this stuff? Comprehensive privacy laws must be put in place to define such things. Also, if these companies don’t do something about their image, they can easily fall prey to something known as the big company syndrome. According to this syndrome that is currently afflicting Google, people begin to get suspicious of companies that have grown very large. In the case of Facebook, it’s important to point out the actual words of the “Terms of service” document stated that content was still subject to your privacy settings. Therefore, it was not like you could one day end up seeing your mug shot on the side of a bus, as one blogger commented.

Facebook’s view of the matter is that they just want to keep your content after you’ve left to keep the social fabric of the web site going. They liken it to emailing, where a copy of your email is found both with the sender in the sent items and one in the inbox of the receiver. Ostensibly, they just want to retain the copy they have. Therefore, does sharing imply parting with rights? These are difficult questions to answer. And those that significantly value their privacy tilt towards absolute control over their own content. What can we learn from this? Well, the first thing you need to do is stop thinking of these web sites as your personal diary. Consider them as publishing tools instead of your own little digital domain. Update your privacy settings to the maximum possible level. An added benefit of this is that you’ll probably stop getting those friend requests from random people which make you go “hmm... do i know this person?” Be proactive — maybe you can take an active part in formulation of policies. Facebook for instance has now started a community where it welcomes users’ thoughts on the privacy issue. Incidentally the protest group on Facebook called “People Against the New Terms of Service” had 1,13,383 members while going to print while the “Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” group had 73,272 members. Also you could take the trouble to read the privacy agreements of these web sites instead of so willingly clicking on agree all the time. At least read the parts most relevant to you. If sifting through tons of legalese is not your thing look for blogs that explain stuff in simple English. Amanda French, a blogger, and authority on the subject offer comparisons between the terms of service of MySpace, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Definitely worth a read. Last but not the least, one should remember that whatever you put out there on the internet will most likely remain much after you’re gone, even if the service providers honestly delete them from their databases. The internet’s memory unlike public memory is not short lived.