Mar 12, 2011

The Social Network Users Bill of Rights

An interesting debate about whether or not social network users have rights and a proposed Social Network Users Bill of Rights is emerging.  The proposed bill of rights as currently drafted identifies fourteen rights of that social network users should be able to expect from the social networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter et al.) of which we’re members:

  1. Honesty – honor your privacy policy and TOS
  2. Clarity – make sure your policies, settings and TOS are easy to understand and find
  3. Freedom of speech – don’t delete or modify what people say without clear policy
  4. Empowerment – support assistive technologies and universal accessibility
  5. Self-protection – support privacy enhancing technologies
  6. Data minimization – less is more, don’t require people to give a ton of data to get access – minimize data I’m required to provide and what’s shared with others
  7. Control – let me control my data, and don’t facilitate sharing it unless I agree first
  8. Predictability – give notice before changing how data is shared
  9. Data portability – make it easy for me to get a copy of my data
  10. Protection –treat my data as securely as your own
  11. Right to know – show me how you’re using my data and allow me to see who has access
  12. Right to self define – let me create more than one identity
  13. Right to appeal – let me appeal punitive actions
  14. Right to withdraw – right to delete my account and associated data

Four of the folks who had a hand in drafting the bill of rights discussed the rights and ramifications at SXSW yesterday:

  • Christina Gangier (@gagnier) partner, Gagnier Margossian LLP and CEO, REALPOLITECH, a digital PR and web strategy consultancy.
  • Jack Lerner (@jacklerner) clinical assistant professor of law at USC, and director of the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic.
  • Lisa Borodkin (@lisaborodkin) entertainment and internet attorney, technology analyst
  • Alex Howard (@digiphile) government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media.

The data we provide to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN and other networks becomes the asset they sell to fund growth and operations, and ultimately deliver profits.  Contrary to popular belief, usage of these networks isn’t free.   One thing to think about is what would happen if the social networks were suddenly restricted significantly from using or selling the data their members provide.  The money to fund operations would have to come from somewhere.

Ultimately, this poses a bit of a threat for brands investing time and resource in building presences on free social networks – significant changes in the rules around how companies collect, share and use the data provided by the users of the social networks could change dramatically, which could have a significant effect on the networks’ business models and ability to dish out the features that are so good at attracting and engaging audiences. The potential for significant change is a caveat brands can’t ignore.

The discussion touched on the fact that several of the actors have so many users that the network effect actually gives them tremendous power of their members – essentially forming a type of monopoly over interactions and personal data resulting in disproportionate market power.   Lisa Borodkin noted that the bill of rights, if it became enforceable, would likely create more competition.

On some level, I’m wondering if that’s a good thing.  In some cases, scale is truly an important aspect of the network or company.  I like Facebook because it seems that almost everyone I’ve ever know from preschool onward is using it.  Google has value to searchers because it’s indexed so much content.  The scale of both makes using them efficient.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I personally need to devote a lot more thought to this issue.  In the meantime,  I encourage everyone else to do the same:  visit the Social Network Users Bill of Rights Web Site ( where you can read, consider and comment upon each proposed right and learn more about this movement.   Feedback and votes will be collected until June 15, 2011.  The conversation also continues on Twitter with the hashtag #snubor.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president, social media.

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