Who owns your Facebook profile?

Increasingly, our online presences define who we are.   Our lives have a sort of virtual counterpart as we report on what happens in our “real world” lives to the rest of the world in online social forums such as Facebook, MySpace, and blogs.  As our lives become increasingly exposed to the online world, you can’t help but wonder which is more important:  your real life, or the life the world sees through your online presence.  Just as your credit score (a number), not your real-life financial habits, is the primary mechanism for determining your creditworthiness, for better or worse, your online presence in many contexts is the true essence of who your are, and the side of you that matters most.  For example, to what degree is your LinkedIn network used by hiring managers to decide whether or not you are a good fit for the company with whom you are seeking employment?

Despite differences in the perceived influence of our online profiles, most of us will at least go so far as to say that the content you create and post online is at least an important part of  your life and is content that you wish to keep and control.  But, as important as our online profiles are, we are generally happy to give up rights to our data and transfer control of it to third parties.  As an example, let’s take a look at the Facebook Terms of Use.

When you post User Content to the Site, you authorize and direct us to make such copies thereof as we deem necessary in order to facilitate the posting and storage of the User Content on the Site. By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing. 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. Facebook does not assert any ownership over your User Content; rather, as between us and you, subject to the rights granted to us in these Terms, you retain full ownership of all of your User Content and any intellectual property rights or other proprietary rights associated with your User Content.  (http://www.facebook.com/terms.php).

According to this, “Facebook does not assert any ownership over your User Content.”  While this in many respects takes care of the legal side of things, it does not really address the practical issues of data ownership and control.  Legally I “own” my Facebook profile, but how do I “get” it?  How do I “save” it?  If Facebook servers went down tomorrow (perhaps an unlikely scenario), would I be able to retrieve my profile?  What about the hundreds of pictures that I have uploaded?  Or my messages?  So, while I do retain ownership of content I create, Facebook does not guarantee anything about accessing it.  On the other side of the coin, what if I want to remove some or all of my profile?  Let’s say I log in and delete some of my messages.  Are they really gone?  How many backup copies exist on Facebook servers?

Before going on, allow me to interject  a couple of things at this point.  First, I realize that the last paragraph is starting to sound a little conspiracy-theory-esque.  I do not think that Facebook is out to get us or that anyone is planning on using our profiles against us, etc.  Nor is this intended to be a rant against Facebook and I do not have any issues with the way Facebook has handled my own content.  On the contrary, I imagine that the original creators of Facebook had no idea that the size of its user base would become so incredibly massive and questions of data ownership and control probably seemed relatively inconsequential in its early phases of development.  Further, the privacy controls of Facebook seem quite reasonable insofar as you can decide which people get to see what content.  The data policies of Facebook are in line with the data policies of almost every other service that hosts user-generated content.  In fact, you can make the same observations of many other sites, such as LinkedIn or your favorite blog site.

The underlying issue here is bigger than just control over your social networking profile.  What I am exploring here is whether we need a technological and cultural shift in the way we think about user-generated data–including who owns it, who controls it, how it is accessed, and where it is stored.  The typical approach for architecting a site that delivers user-generated content is for the site to host both the application and the data.  The reasons for this are many.  For one, there is much technological inertia in that direction.  It fits the typical design pattern for building a web site:  get a web server, get a database server, get them to talk, and presto–you are ready to go.  Having the data close to the application is perhaps the basic premise for ensuring efficiency of data operations.  Consider the fact that Facebook serves over 15 billion images per day.  On average, that’s over 170,000 images per second.  You absolutely have to have the data close at hand to get that kind of throughput.  Also, most users are not really interested in managing their own data to begin with.  And, if site developers wish to make a change to the application (such as adding a new field to the profile) they can do so with ease because they have control over both the application and the data schema.  So, there is clearly good reason for sites like Facebook to manage the data for you.

But, let’s imagine another scenario.  Let’s say you are signing up for a new Facebook account.  After putting in some basic information, you are presented with a prompt:  “Where would you like to store your profile information and other user-generated content?”  You are then given a couple of choices:  1.  Have Facebook maintain my profile data.  2.  Allow Facebook to access my personal “cloud” storage area.  You select option 2.  At this point you provide Facebook with credentials to access part of your personal storage area “in the cloud.”  Facebook would then access your storage area and configure it as required for the application.  All of  your Facebook user data would be stored there and accessed by Facebook as needed.  To be clear, the user experience on the site would be no different than if Facebook stored all of your data locally.  But, in fact, your data is now sitting inside a storage area that you own and control.

Is such a thing technically possible?  Would Facebook ever agree to it?  Is there really a need or a demand for this?  I have much more to say on this subject, but let’s leave it here for now.

Some related links:

http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Enterprise-Applications/Who-Owns-Your-Social-Data-You-Do-Sort-of/

http://www.dataportability.org/

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About rsdunlapiv

Computer science PhD student at Georgia Tech

3 responses to “Who owns your Facebook profile?”

  1. jwredding says :

    Hey Rocky,

    Interesting thoughts. I have no idea whether this is possible (but I’m guessing you do!), and I don’t know if Facebook would agree to it.

    I could see this being beneficial and desirable in contexts where privacy and free speech issues are important. For example, a person might appreciate this if he wanted hospitals/ physicians to have access to his medical records in order to properly treat and diagnose him. But he didn’t want to risk the hospital inadvertently making his medical records known to others. Or a blogger in China, Cuba, Korea (North or South–surprisingly) or any number of places (and I’m guessing this list will grow as economies weaken and governments strengthen) may want to allow Facebook or someone else to access his profile and user-generated content, but he would also want to be able to physically keep the data himself for security purposes. But with respect to Facebook accounts now, I don’t think there would be much of a demand for it. It seems that the whole point of Facebook is reduce a person’s privacy (at least to some extent). I’m guessing that most Facebook folks wouldn’t be concerned about not having control over their data.

    By the way, here’s the site for Mars Hill Audio Journal I was telling you about. There are some free discussions on there. I highly recommend it.
    http://www.marshillaudio.org/default.asp

    Blessings,
    Jeff

  2. rsdunlapiv says :

    The Facebook debate just got more interesting with a new Terms of Service statement.

    http://consumerist.com/5150175/facebooks-new-terms-of-service-we-can-do-anything-we-want-with-your-content-forever

  3. Asagai says :

    This totally possible! There are a few technical issues that must be taken into account but it certainly can be done.

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