Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bill of Rights for Social Networks?

Reacting to the Facebook privacy uproar and Google Buzz's recent release of users' top email contacts, an influential group of social media activists is meeting this week in Silicon Valley to hammer out a Web-wide Bill of Rights for social network users.

The goal: to catalyze a user movement that will compel social network owners and operators to give users more say over their personal information -- including a right that lets users quit a site (leave it) and take every trace of their data with them.

The group, meeting through Friday at the 2010 Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference in San Jose, is livestreaming and posting its deliberations, as well as conducting some of its conversations on Facebook and Twitter so as to involve as many interested users and viewpoints as possible. (Those interested may follow the deliberations at #BillofRights and #cfpconf.)

"We're not the first people to have the idea of a social network users' bill of rights," said conference chair Jon Pincus. "In fact, we decided to make the creation of a user Bill of Rights a main focus of our gathering because people all across the country are starting to push for a set of principles to define best practices for social networks. We thought it was time to combine inputs and produce one such document that embodied the sentiments of as many social network users as possible."

Being used as a basis for the discussion is the Electronic Frontier Foundation's recent framework, which proposes that any rights manifesto should contain three broad categories of rights: the right to informed decision-making (compel social network owners to tell users what they are doing with user data); the right to control (giving users ownership of their information and control over who can view that information), and the right to leave (letting people quit Facebook or any other social networking service with the ability to take their personal information with them.)

"A networking Bill of Rights is a tool that users can use for education and empowerment," Jack Lerner, director of the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic, told conferees yesterday. Lerner added:

"Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla right now but that won't necessarily be the case forever. Our purpose this week is to galvanize users of all social networking sites and educate them, not just on what they ought to be looking for in a social network but about how some of their rights are being subverted. Some networking companies have been reckless and irresponsible and not a lot of people yet realize what all is at stake here. There are complaints now from people who say their Facebook pages are disappearing if they're critical of the company. I think it's time for clear guidelines about what is acceptable company behavior and what is not. This is not just about privacy and social media but whether users are being treated fairly by the companies that depend on their information."

What do you think? What rights should users of social networks have? Are user rights a value that social media entrepreneurs can build new businesses around?

-- Marcia Stepanek


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