There's something wrong with the Facebook row. FUD aside, I have some thoughts I'd like to share:
My understanding of the situation is Facebook would like any content you choose to share stays shared with the people you shared it with, and have tried to make the necessary changes to their policies and user agreements to reflect that, and have done so in legalese.
I believe that once something is published it should stay that way. There'd be uproar if an author decided to unpublish a book, and you were somehow required to destroy your copy of it? We've already seen the fury that happens when a DRM server goes off-line and people loose the ability to play their games of listen to their music. Suppose a friend had given you a print of a photo they took of you and your significant other, and ten years later it suddenly disappears from the picture frame above your fireplace?
As I found out with the Church of Pohawk project, any source of photos you make available to acquaintances will soon have its content replicated by well-meaning people that don't understand copyright, don't care about copyright, or have been too lazy to read the attached usage licence (first a vague Attribution license, later Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike), and if it's publicly browsable, it might well stay in the Wayback Machine forever. You might as well ask people to un-see something, a feat that anyone who's been around the internet a bit is still waiting to achieve.
What Facebook and countless other sites need is a very clear and simple human readable summary backed by no more legalese than is required, and a gentle user education policy that goes along the lines of
IF YOU DON'T WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW WHAT YOU DID (LAST SUMMER) THEN DON'T DO IT, DON'T TALK ABOUT IT AND DON'T PUBLISH THE EVIDENCE
Excuse my shouting there. Faceparty appears to be unique amongst social networks in explaining the rules in an easily understandable format (NSFW). Without going resorting to obscenities, there is an organisation looming in the background that provides a brilliant example of what's needed to explain complex contracts, Creative Commons. They produce a number of licences with human-understandable summaries linked to the required equivalent legalese.
Two of the websites I'm involved in, arguably social networks in themselves, leeds.scifi.me.uk and leedsrocksoc.co.uk now use the Attribution - Share Alike licence because we believe it's a close representation of the rights users think they have and the rights the organisation requires to host such a site. Something as simple as a conversation in one of the Forums is a collaborative work, and as a whole it's mostly coherent, with each reply being a derivative of the comments that came before it. If half of a conversation ceased to exist the whole conversation is ruined for anyone trying to keep track of what was said, so the community needs to have the right to use and reproduce. In order to serve pages, make backups and do anything else with regard to operating the site, the organisation responsible for the site needs some kind of right to reproduce. On the other hand users expect their words and pictures to be theirs in some way, so there's an implicit attribution requirement. As for sharing, none of our users (with the exception of one who chose to exercise his right to satirise a Microsoft EULA and include it in his signature) have objected to the idea of a contract to share with anyone else who will also share.
I've noticed that in the course of writing this post there is a post on the Creative Commons website inviting Facebook to join in the sharing. I doubt it'll happen but it would be a step in the right direction. It seems that I have to try to explain copyright law or software licences to someone nearly every day and I get the feeling that I'm quite often resented for being the bearer of bad news, yet everywhere we see unintentional copyright violations. The BBC accidentally used a photo from flickr without authorisation because no-one thought to check, university courses in web design make vague recommendations to get photos form the internet, yet deliver the plagiarise and we'll throw you out speech. Almost everyone ignores the small print included just about everywhere. Of course there's layer upon layer of conflicting interests. Vendors want to hide how badly they're screwing their customers and ensure their arses are covered, and legalese is better than armour-plate. The lawyers writing the legalese benefit if lawyers are needed to read the legalese, and of course if it needs to be written in legalese in the first place, well a mere mortal can't do that. As for enforcing copyright on the very documents containing the laws, well that's just not in the public interest.
How can we change the world? I don't have all the answers, I am vaguely human after all. But perhaps we could follow the Creative Commons example and try and build voluntary standards for contractual small print. Maybe expand the idea of a summary and symbol or abbreviation linked to the legalese. Perhaps creating an international standard for certain legal phrases so they can be recognised when they appear, as opposed to being subject to interpretation and cut out all of the qualifying clauses. Perhaps impose minimum sizes for small-print. What about requiring any company that produces a legally binding document that uses clauses outside of approved standards to pay for an independent party to explain the agreement in detail to anyone that they consider to be in breach of the agreement. Maybe that's going too far but this leads me to one very important question:
Have you have read and understood the terms and conditions you agreed to when you joined facebook, opened a bank account, and installed their favourite piece of software?
And should the following be legally binding?
By reading this article, you agree to the following:
- To leave an insightful comment below
- To read all of ITEF RFC 3751
- To buy me a pint (of the substance commonly known as beer, details of exact specifications given on request)