In an earlier post this year, I held out hope that 2009 would finally be the year where people started taking data ownership and data portability seriously.
As Facebook often does, they help illustrate why this is relevant, and why this is something people should care about.
Facebook's terms of service (TOS) used to say that when you closed an account on their network, any rights they claimed to the original content you uploaded would expire. Not anymore.
Now, anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later. Want to close your account? Good for you, but Facebook still has the right to do whatever it wants with your old content. They can even sublicense it if they want.
To summarize, the old version of Facebook's Terms of Service used to specify that, when a person deleted their account, their content went with them (and never mind that the process of deleting an account has proven, well, troublesome for some).
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg initially defended the change (does this remind anyone else of the response to Beacon?), but 24 hours later Facebook announced that they would revert to the original terms of service.
But really, the hue and cry over Facebook's terms of service misses the larger point: when you put your data into a hosted service, you are allowing it to slide outside of your control. This is true of most hosted services, including Facebook, Ning, MySpace, etc. Facebook's change of the license terms illustrates a larger point: they control your data. More importantly, sites like Facebook and Ning allow people who have no ties to either company to access your data via third party apps. A quick read through the Developers Terms of Service for both Facebook and Ning show that developers of these apps can access user data and content, but this creates an enormous gray area: if someone deletes their account, what happens to any data collected by these third party application developers? I would love to hear of the mechanisms in place that measure how application developers abide by the rules concerning user data.
At the risk of stating the obvious, none of these are concerns for sites built using open source tools.
And for those curious about where this ends, it looks like Facebook's interest in user data extends beyond the grave.