[FOWA Expo – London]
Presenting at FOWA this afternoon (Thursday), Facebook’s senior platform manager Dave Morin did a good job of wooing developers with promises of rapid, viral growth and potentially vast audiences for their Facebook applications. However, he failed to quell my fears that Facebook wants to ‘own’ both the social graph (i.e. the data about its users’ relationships to one another) and, indeed, their actual data – photos, videos, artwork, writing and anything else they post on Facebook and permit the site to host.
Although Morin said Facebook was becoming more open (which in some ways it is) , he tellingly evaded the chance to endorse the idea that social graph data should be the property of users, according to the principles laid out by Brad Fitzpatrick. And he also dodged my other question about whether Facebook’s sign-up terms amounted to a ‘rights grab’*, waffling on instead about how user privacy was of the utmost importance to the company.
Don’t get me wrong, I use and like Facebook, and I don’t begrudge the company its success. It stole a march on competitors with the Facebook platform/API, and it is deservedly reaping the rewards. But I don’t trust it with my data in the same way I do, say, Google or Flickr. Why? Because it seems to be exhibiting a backwards-thinking, proprietorial, anti-user attitude (I feel a similar dismay at Apple’s refusal to allow third-party apps on the iPhone, incidentally). As well as the ‘rights grab’ issue, there’s the disturbing reports of the company silencing users who dare level even the most mundane criticisms at it.
My guess is that the company’s reluctance to endorse the principles of an open social web, where users own their own data and the data about their relationships, has much to do with the fact it is in in big-money talks with potential investors. Some may believe Facebook’s ‘ownership’ of social graph and user data are trump cards in the bid to maximise its valuation. But if anyone really believes the company can own that data, and force everyone to use its platform, I think they are sorely mistaken. As Fitzpatrick’s post goes on to note, there are ways to slurp data from even uncooperative sites. And any attempt by Facebook to exert its rights over user data to the letter of its audacious terms is, I believe, highly unlikely. It would doubtless be met by a huge wave of oppropbrium across the media and blogosphere – as well as, quite possibly, a successful legal challenge.
My belief is that eventually, Facebook will have to bow to the inevitable: open up and start having real conversations with its users, listening to them and taking on board what they say – like so many other great companies I saw at FOWA (about which more later). If it did so sooner rather than later – by rewriting its sign-up terms and commiting to the open social web – I believe it would gain more credibility, more stability and ultimately more growth.
* When you sign up for Facebook, you agree to their terms, which state in part: “By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.” link