Hotel Facebook and Tethered Data

After writing yesterday about the Facebook Terms of Service fiasco — Facebook just reverted their Terms of Service due to user outcry — I remembered that Mark Zuckerberg has talked about data ownership before. So I did a little bit of Googling.

Here’s what he said in March 2008:

If you export your friends list, does their contact information come with that? What if they change their privacy settings later? Right now if you take an action that gets published to your friends’ news feeds, but then if you change your privacy settings later to be more restrictive – then those events disappear from the news feeds. If that data is published off-site, then there’s no longer any control over the data for users.

So my friends can’t take their data with them to a different service, because that data might include some of my data, and what if I want to change my privacy preferences later?

But wait, what was it that Zuckerberg said yesterday?

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work.

So my friends should keep my data even if I leave Facebook entirely… wait what? Which is it? Do my friends get to keep my data or not? Do I have the power to revoke access, or not? Because leaving Facebook altogether sure seems like “revoke access” on steroids.

It seems Facebook is drawing the line between its service and its competitors’. Facebook is like Hotel California: data comes in, but it can never come out. That’s not a pleasant message of course, so Facebook sometimes says they’re trying to protect you from your data-promiscuous friends, and at other times says they’re trying to protect your friends from your over-protective permission-revoking ways.

This sounds to me like tethered data. Data stays connected to Facebook, always. Grant/revoke access all you want, as long as you’re still within Facebook.

Jonathan Zittrain’s book and papers on the Future of the Internet offer fantastic insight into tethered devices like the Tivo and the iPhone, and how these may change the nature of computing in fundamental ways. There are similarities here. Facebook doesn’t own your data in the copyright sense of the word “own”, but they effectively own your data because it’s tethered to Facebook, and it’s going to be hard for you to re-create the same complete dataset somewhere else.

Though Facebook reacted well to user outcry, I’m still not convinced that they actually care about your privacy. It’s a convenience thing: your privacy is important because it helps Facebook with data lock-in. The subtle shift between you interest and your friends’ interests is, in my opinion, very revealing. Facebook knows what’s best for you and for your friends. And apparently, leaving Facebook is bad for you.

One thought on “Hotel Facebook and Tethered Data

  1. Irony: I made the “Hotel California” parallel in a conversation with John Clements the other day. I’d point you to the thread, but it’s on Facebook where you can’t see it.

    I definitely agree that the “spirit of Facebook” is one of absorption: absorb new users, absorb their data, increase the mass of the system to help attract and absorb even more. Contrast Twitter, which has serious network effects too, but its spirit is one of publication.

    I can point you to a Twitter conversation; it’s out there, in public, with a URL and everything. The information hasn’t been lost below some event horizon, as is the story with Facebook.

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