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Does Facebook Own You?

Revisiting Q&As: BU prof Azer Bestavros discusses a social networking revolt


“We’re still grappling with what it means to have these social interactions online,” says Azer Bestavros, a CAS professor of computer science. Photo courtesy of Azer Bestavros

The art of the interview can be as subtle as any creative form, as complicated as any relationship. When an interview goes well, a question elicits a profound answer, an answer suggests the next thoughtful question, and like footsteps right and left, the alternating rhythm leads toward some fine place. This week we’re tracing back through some of the previous academic year’s interviews, revisiting Q&As that ricochet from person to person, angling through intriguing subjects.

In five short years, Facebook has grown from an insider’s social site, created by and for college students, into a sprawling network of networks crammed with 175 million members worldwide. First high school kids joined the Facebook ranks, then teachers, professors, and even parents signed on. And while it remains a fun and useful site for millions of people, it’s become an obsession for some, a pitfall for those who overshare, and a backdoor for awkward and unwanted social contacts.

Lately, Facebook users have faced the fact that the easygoing college students who created this free service are now businesspeople concerned about profit, licensing, and liability. In 2007, Facebook had to back down from a controversial deal with a service that tracked the online shopping behavior of its users and then shared the data with advertisers and with the users’ “friends.” In February, Facebook users revolted again after a blog affiliated with the nonprofit Consumers Union highlighted recent changes that the company had made to its terms of service, also known as the fine print. Basically, the company had deleted a provision allowing people 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 its creator closed his or her account. Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, says the company was just trying to deal with things such as comments that are posted and shared on multiple pages by people who later terminated their accounts. But thousands of users agreed with Consumers Union, which characterized Facebook’s new stance as, “We can do anything we want with your content. Forever.”

Speculation that Facebook wanted to keep user data for future sale to third parties or might incorporate users’ words or images in commercial material led to a torrent of protest postings. Within days, Zuckerberg apologized, withdrew the terms-of-service changes (for the time being), and issued a Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. For some perspective on the controversy and what it might portend for Facebook’s future, we spoke with Azer Bestavros, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of computer science.

BU Today: Facebook protesters saw this as an attempt by the corporate powers-that-be to exploit what they post online. Facebook executives, meanwhile, insist it was just a misunderstanding. What’s your take?
I think that it’s hard to answer that question, because perhaps the executives did not think ahead of time about the implications of allowing postings on walls and things of this sort. Imagine that I send you an e-mail from my Hotmail account, and then I close my Hotmail account. The e-mail I sent you from that account doesn’t disappear in your inbox. So who owns the writing on the Facebook walls? Is it the person who wrote it or the person on whose wall it was written or is it Facebook? The site’s creators are saying, “We cannot display these messages on somebody’s wall unless we have access to them. It doesn’t mean that we own them.”

These are the kind of complications you get with social networking sites. There are so many stakeholders — the individual who creates content, the people with whom that user communicates, and the groups where that content is posted. So you can understand that Facebook is realizing that here is this inconsistency and how do we deal with users who leave the network, but with their footprints all over the place.

From Facebook’s perspective, maybe that’s one solution: once you put it up there, it’s ours, and so we can display it anywhere. Obviously, users have every right to be irritated by this. But I don’t know if the users themselves thought enough about the implications of putting their content on Facebook.

There are two main aspects to the anger over Facebook’s terms-of-service change: privacy and control of intellectual property. Are these both legitimate concerns in your eyes?
Yes. I feel like we really don’t have good models to think about these new ways of communication in terms of either. We understand how the Web works and how e-mail works, but I think we’re still grappling with what it means to have these social interactions online. The businesses don’t know how to deal with it, as I’ve mentioned in discussions of the recording industry. The media business is also struggling with this. At the same time, it could be that user expectations of privacy need to be adjusted. The issue in both cases is controlling information that is part of an echo system. So we need better models for emerging forums like Facebook and others.

Speaking of controlling information online, some have reacted to this story by saying that Facebook users should just be more careful. What about the personal responsibility angle?
I think that’s absolutely right. We tend to be less careful when it comes to using online media. I’m not exactly sure why that’s the case. The same people who put potentially embarrassing pictures of themselves online would probably not hang those pictures out their window. What if one day I decide something is inappropriate and I want to remove it when people already have copies of it? What about other people’s comments on that content? You have people writing entries on a wall responding to each other. Do you own the words you wrote? They don’t make any sense without the context of words others wrote.

Facebook’s founders have withdrawn the changes and issued a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, which says, “You own your information. Facebook does not.” So, is that the end of it?
I don’t think it’s solved. When you say you own the information, who is “you”? This is all about sharing, after all. The whole Facebook idea is about sharing comments, pictures, links. Is it like putting content in the public domain, or at least the public domain of my friends? It’s not clear.

Is there something to be said in defense of a service where users have this much ability to influence corporate policies?
Yes. If you look at other organizations, such as Comcast, it took them months to reverse themselves on reducing the bandwidth for those who use peer-to-peer software. I was actually impressed with how fast Facebook responded to this. But I think we could see this effect spreading beyond the policies of social networking sites. You could have 100,000 people on Facebook protesting something Microsoft does, for example, and Microsoft will probably respond. If a million people are unhappy, but they’re independently unhappy and don’t know about each other, it’s clearly much different than if you have a million unhappy people all shouting at the same time.

Is Facebook, like many previous social networking sites, doomed to collapse sooner or later under its own weight?
I don’t know. First of all, I don’t think of Facebook as a single social network. There are networks of students, parents, people linked by different languages, people linked by religion. Facebook has the advantage of having different social networks that can coexist within it — unlike, say, Linked In, which is really targeting professionals, and where it is hard to imagine many subnetworks growing within it. So you could argue that Facebook is actually not that big, because within it there are still well-defined groups. I can see why Facebook has been dominant among the other social network sites. As I said, another site could always specialize and do a better job for a specialized population. But if I want to be part of 15 different social networks, I don’t want to keep 15 accounts. Facebook is the one place where with one account I can do all of the above.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

This story originally ran February 24, 2009.


2 Comments on Does Facebook Own You?

  • Anonymous on 07.23.2009 at 9:23 am

    Facebook Users Beware

    I was having a lot of fun using Facebook. Getting messages from old friends and BU students both current and graduates. A few weeks ago, a “friend” suggestion appeared, for a New York actor I had had some e-mail correspondence with last year. I was surprised, but figured ‘what the hell’ and requested to “friend” him. Needless to say, I got a really negative response from him. He didn’t know who I was. (His response came from a “no reply” source, so I couldn’t even apologize to him for violating his personal space. He probably thinks I am a stalker.) Then I started thinking, how did Facebook connect me to this person ? We have no mutual friends and my e-mail correspondence with him was over a year ago. Somehow they read into my e-mail and put us together. Not a healthy thing !!! I closed my Facebook account immediately. Too much information is out there !

  • Jesse G., Class of 2013 on 07.23.2009 at 5:42 pm

    I've always been uneasy...

    I agree entirely with your position on this topic. I knew I was on to something when I deleted mine. I have never felt secure on facebook. Though there are areas of the site that are “private,” (such as “messages” or the recent addition of “user-to-user” chatting, in which a small window appears in the bottom right corner of your window should someone desire a chat from your friends’ list) it is clear to me just how easy it is for anyone to browse through your information. What upsets me more are not the other users, as much as the company itself. Facebook must not only be selling mass quantities of user data to corporations, but to government agencies as well. I may be wrong…

    Professor Bestavros, I am excited to learn more about this – being an upcoming freshman in the CAS at BU, I hope I may actually have this conversation with you in person.

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