The blogosphere and the Twitterverse have been full of angry posts and tweets on the recent changes to Facebook’s terms and conditions and the subsequent reversal in the light of the negative publicity. My, perhaps somewhat controversial, view is that there has been a failure to recognise the complexities related to ownership of data in a social networked environment and instead we have been seeing simplistic solutions being proposed which, if applied generally, would undermine the development of the more open social networks which, ironically, many of those engaged in the discussions would actually prefer to see.

Consider the view that “it’s my data and if I wish it to be deleted then this must be permitted“. There’s no ambiguity in such a view which, on the surface, appears reasonable.  But how might this be applied in other contexts such as, for example, the UK’s JISC-funded JISCMail service. This service has a policy document which is publicly available. This states thatWhen you leave JISCmail, your name, email address and, if relevant, Shibboleth Targeted_ID will be removed from our database“. That sounds good, and is in keeping with the expectations which have been raised in the context of Facebook’s changes to its terms and conditions. However the JISCMail policy goes on to state that “However, any message you have posted to a list will remain in the archives“. What? JISCMail are going to keep my data (forever, I assume) even though, in the policy on copyright, JISCMail have admitted that “When you send a message to a JISCmail list, you retain your copyright in that message“. JISCMail, it would seem, are behaving even worse than Facebook; at least Facebook have been honest and openly stated that they won’t delete users’ data, with (new) users having to acept these terms and conditions. JISCMail, on the other hand, states that it’s the user’s data but keeps the data if the user leaves the service. What about all of those embarrassing messages I posted when I was young and naive, I may wonder?

Now I should hasten to add that I’m not saying there is anything wrong in JISCMail terms and conditions; I am simply pointing out one example of the complexities. And yes, I am aware that an email message will be replicated in many places, so deleting one instance in the JISCMail archive wouldn’t be of much use. And I am also aware that deleting individual messages would undermine records of discussions.

And these are arguments which Mark Zuckerberg has been making in his defence of the changes to the terms and conditions. But many of the initial responses have failed to acknowledge such complexities. The first post I read which did have a more considered view was the Dataportability blog which, in a post on “Redefining and Standardizing ‘Ownership“, acknowledged that “Facebook, by virtue of its sheer size and scope, is often the first to run into issues that the rest of the social web will need to address sooner rather than later“.

The other post which gave carefully considered thoughts was published by my colleague Paul Walk in his post which argued “Facebook wants your attention, not your photos“. Now Paul has admitted “I’m certainly not a fan of Facebook. I have yet to find a use for it in my professional life and have criticised before the assumption that, for example, Higher Education should be embracing it as a service because it is widely popular“.  But rather than taking an opportunity to join in the general condemnation, Paul describes how he  “think[s] the furore about Facebook’s ‘ownership’ of user-generated-content has, by and large, slightly missed the point“.

As someone who has posted a number of posts which have had a more positive view towards Facebook than Paul it would be appropriate for me to agree that Facebook have made mistakes in the way it has handled the changes to its terms and conditions. And yet, ironically, Facebook can manage (and delete) content held in its ‘walled garden’ than would be the case in more open and distributed social networked environments.

But let’s join in with the Data Portability blog and Paul Walk in having a more mature and considered discussion of the complexities of ownership and controlled within social networks.