Plaxo’s Social Networking “Bill of Rights”

by on August 6, 2008 · 4 comments

MIT’s Technology Review has some great pieces on social networking in its latest issue.   In particular, I enjoyed reading Erica Naone’s piece “Who Owns Your Friends?”  Immediately this piece appealed to a libeartarian like me who is interested in privacy issues, especially because it framed the issues as one of ownership, not one of privacy rights.

The story begins by recounting the story of blogger Robert Scoble who wanted the emails of all of his Facebook friends in his Outlook address book. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t provide an export tool for this sort of thing in order to protect the emails of its users. Being a resourceful guy, Scoble contacted some buddies at Plaxo, a company that specializes in transferring data from one site to another. Plaxo provided Scoble with experimental tool that allowed him to extract email addresses from the profile pages of his Facebook friends. Unfortunately for Scoble, this data scrape triggered alerts at Facebook, shutting down his account.

Scoble later had his account reinstated, but this incident brought up an important question: Should data always be portable, or should some sites, like Facebook, be able to clamp down on portability in the name of privacy?

What I find intersting/annoying is Plaxo’s reaction to this foofarah: a “Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web,” which reads as follows:

We publicly assert that all users of the social web are entitled to certain fundamental rights, specifically:

Ownership of their own personal information, including:

  • their own data
  • the list of people they are connected to
  • the activity stream of content they create;

Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others; and

Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites.

I have a few problems with this declaration

  1. The least important, but nonetheless annoying problem with this is that the term “Bill of Rights” is too often abused in this way.  The original Bill of Rights was a document engineered to protect people from political tyranny, not a consumer product wish-list.  This trivializes real rights.
  2. The declaration doesn’t make sense internally.  If I own my own data, then what happens if I don’t want to be part of a list someone can export from a social networking site, even if I’m their friend?  Does this “Bill of Rights” allow me to have such a position, or does the right of others to “the list of people they are connected to” trump my ownership of my own data?  A standardized set of “rights” like this is silly for just this sort of reason.  Social networking sites should be able to figure out how open or closed they want to be—balancing portability and privacy—and consumers should then be able to pick what works best for them among the choices.
  3. Isn’t this just a wish-list for Plaxo?  The last line is a dead giveaway.  “Persistent access” for “external trusted sites” translates from pseudo-rights language into business language as “all sites should let Plaxo scrape information from them.”  Plaxo’s business is shipping data around from one site to another, so this is just a self-interested declaration.  This would be similar to Google declaring that everyone has the right to search on free computers provided by the government.  Maybe they really believe it, but they’d also stand to make a lot of money from this new-found “right.”

These bills of rights keep cropping up for everything.  Airline passengers, patients, K-Mart shoppers, social networking users—suddenly these groups all need special rights. But these aren’t rights, not in the sense of keeping these folks free from political tyranny or free from others harming them, stealing from them, or defrauding them. Instead, these are specific business models masquerading as rights. For Plaxo, having these “rights” accepted as the universal truth, means they win big.

Rights are also something universal, but it’s not clear that openness is the best way to run a social network.  It might be the case that Facebook has the right idea with its “Platform” system. This tool allows information from Facebook to be used on other sites through a sort of widget, so the data never actually leaves Facebook. It’s an interesting approach, one that may allow data to stay secure and controlled by users while still allowing out of Facebook’s walled garden and into the wider web.

Then again, Platform may be an overly cumbersome way of doing things.  The point is, it’s not up to me, nor should either way be declared a “right.”  Instead, we should let consumers figure it out.

Talk of rights leads to government enforcement of those rights.  This is great when the rights are real, but when they’re phony rights, it leads to less choice for consumers, less innovation, and usually lining the pockets of those who first discovered these “rights.”

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