7.7 “YourSpace”—Owning Your Words

In the late 1980s I signed up for an account at an online bulletin-board system called The WELL, short for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. The WELL was way ahead of its time in almost every way, but one in particular stands out even now. Users were greeted with this language:

You own your own words.

The context was primarily about responsibility, which we’ve discussed in earlier chapters and will return to in Chapter 9. But there was another context as well: literal ownership, that “no claims on your copyrights were being made by The WELL, and that you would be responsible for enforcing those rights.”

There was a catch, though. Suppose the WELL went out of business. What would happened to my words? They’d disappear.

Fast forward to 2009, when Facebook launched a feature that became immediately popular: It gave users a way to have URLs—Web addresses—that included their actual real names or recognizable words chosen by the users. I signed up, and my Facebook home page became http://www.facebook.com/dangillmor instead of the previous URL, which looked something like “http://www.facebook.com/234030i8234x2f.”

I did the same over at Google for my home page there. And I made sure that on the other social networks and services I used the most, I grabbed the dangillmor name, if possible; it’s my username on Twitter and Skype, for example.

There are a huge number of services available today, and I have every incentive to try for the dangillmor name at as many as possible. One reason is to avoid confusion or semi-forgery. I’m not especially worried that someone will take over my identity in this way, but there’s no reason to invite trouble. Moreover, new services have emerged that will help you—for a sometimes-substantial fee—nail down the username of your choice, assuming it isn’t already taken, at dozens or even hundreds of sites.

But nailing down my own name raised a bigger question: Did I—do I—actually own my own name at on those services? The answer is an emphatic “No,” because in reality I don’t own the information I put into other people’s sites and services—and that information specifically includes the vanity URL I’m permitted to claim.

This should be clear enough. But when Facebook expunged one of its users in 2008, the event set off a mini-firestorm among people who care about such things, prompting Daniel Solove to post this admonishment at the Concurring Opinions blog:

(Y)ou exist on Facebook at the whim of Facebook. The Facebook dieties [sic] can zap your existence for reasons even more frivolous than those of the Greek gods. Facebook can banish you because you’re wearing a blue T-shirt in your photo, or because it selected you at random, or because you named your blog Above the Law rather than Below the Law.

On the one hand, this rule seems uncontroversial. After all, it is Facebook’s website. They own their site, and they have the right to say who gets to use it and who doesn’t.

But on the other hand, people put a lot of labor and work into their profiles on the site. It takes time and effort to build a network of friends, to upload data, to write and create one’s profile. Locking people out of this seizes all their work from them. It’s like your employer locking you out of your office and not letting you take your things. Perhaps at the very least banished people should be able to reclaim the content of their profiles. But what about all their “friends” on the network? People spend a lot of time building connections, and they can’t readily transplant their entire network of friends elsewhere.

Since this incident, Facebook has opened up the user information in several ways, including letting users access their basic feeds from other websites and desktop applications, but only in specific ways that adhere to Facebook’s strict rules. Facebook still controls the information, though it graciously (ahem) allows you to download what you’ve created there. So the reality is still this: It is Facebook’s site, and they have every right to enforce their own rules, whether wise or ridiculous. Due process? It’s not a judicial system, and we shouldn’t treat or even imagine it that way.

The real issue is why users put so much of their own lives up on the site. Most, I suspect, have no idea that what they post is only partly their own, if at all. As with so many other services people use on today’s Web, they may find out the hard way down the road. It’s the risk we take when we make ourselves subject to the whims of little gods.

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