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Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?

Trust is a fragile commodity.

The generic Facebook face, as reimagined by artists who are also Facebook users.
Portraits by Jason Lee   

Let’s begin with a typical parable of life in the era of web 2.0. On Presidents’ Day, Julius Harper turned on his computer at 9 a.m. This was later than usual, but he had the day off from his job as a video-game producer in Los Angeles. He began his daily “blog check”—Digg, Reddit, “anything interesting, disasters, plane crashes”—before turning to a post on the Consumerist, a consumer-advocacy blog, about the finer points of user privacy on “Facebook’s new Terms of Service: ‘We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever,’ ” it read. “Facebook’s terms of service used to say that when you closed an account on their network, any rights they claimed to the original content you uploaded would expire. Not anymore. Now, anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later.”

Harper, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of Southern California, didn’t like this too much. “I thought, This is bull-crap,” he says. With a few clicks of his mouse, he created a protest group on Facebook, which came to be called People Against the New Terms of Service. “That’s the first group like that I started,” he says. “The other ones I’ve made are just for my friends, like Hey Guys, Let’s Go See Watchmen This Weekend.” Around 10 a.m., he drove to Wal-Mart, where he bought several Healthy Choice lunches for the upcoming workweek. By the time he arrived home, at noon, over 800 people had joined his group. Soon the membership rolls reached 20,000. The next day, NBC Nightly News came to his home in Valencia, California. He checked their I.D.’s at the door. “I thought they might be from The Daily Show or playing a joke on me,” he says. “I mean, I’ve seen Borat.

Overnight, Harper had become a consumer-rights activist, and his protest was turning into a PR disaster for Facebook, a social-networking site of about 200 million members that is both based on an expansive idea of community and invested in controlling it for commercial purposes. Soon, the company’s 24-year-old paterfamilias, Mark Zuckerberg, who also owns over 20 percent of the company’s shares, joined the discussion. We’re family, he seemed to be saying. On his blog, he protested that there was nothing to worry about because “in reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want”—a version of the “Trust us” comment that Google’s Eric Schmidt made to Charlie Rose last year—but, if anything, his remarks only threw fuel on the fire: Why change the terms if it didn’t matter who owned what? And anyway, the issue was more a matter of a kind of pre-rational emotion than any legalistic parsing of rights. What people put up on Facebook was themselves: their personhood, their social worlds, what makes them distinctive and singular. It was a pursuit-of-happiness type of thing. No one else should be permitted to own it.

But Facebook is as sensitive as any politician to feedback from its constituents, especially on the issue of privacy. No other social-networking site provides users the kind of granular privacy settings for their profiles and applications that Facebook does. After Harper received a call from privacy experts who wanted his support in a $5 million FTC complaint—“I was like, ‘Whoa, we don’t care about money,’ ” he says, “ ‘we’re just trying to get the TOS changed’ ”—he heard from a Facebook spokesperson, who asked him for a memo summarizing his group’s complaints. Harper put these together carefully. He thought that Facebook should allow users to decide whether their information could be used for commercial purposes, inform them of which third parties have access to their content, and delete a user’s information the moment he closes his account. Furthermore, changes to the TOS should be made visibly and put to a vote before implementation. Also, it was important that Facebook write its legal documents in a straightforward way. “No Latin!” he wrote. “I’m not sure what forum non conveniens means, and I shouldn’t have to.”

But Zuckerberg made a bold move, aligned with Facebook’s corporate image: He turned the site into a democracy. He decided to reinstate the former TOS, then released a new version a week later that took broad latitude to use our content while we were on the site but fell short of claiming ownership, and that Facebook revoked its rights to our content when we delete our accounts. This version was open for user comments until March 29. Facebook will release its response to the comments by April 10 and put the entire document to a vote by all users during the week of April 20.