dot dot dot july 5

Dot Dot Dot: Coming to terms with Terms of Service

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Are a site’s Terms of Service a moral issue?

Fiverr—which is like a Dollar Store of the Internet (except everything is $5, get it?)—has become a kind of black market for social media popularity. You can buy followers, repins, and likes for your pins and boards on Pinterest. The TotalPinterest blog described the offerings as “shady,” understating, I think, the sentiments of many Internet users.

But why should we care, really, if someone else can buy popularity? These vendors have not broken any actual laws. Pinterest could not have these people arrested for botting the site and falsely inflating people’s likes, repins, and followers.

Perhaps it’s because all this spamming and botting destroys our experience of Pinterest, pushing a bunch of lousy pins into our feeds just because their pinners happen to be willing to spend a few bucks. That’s true of any advertising, however, and advertising is a definitive feature of just about every part of our lives these days.

There’s no commandment that says, “Thou shalt not spam social media.” But practices like these simply don’t pass the sniff test. If social media is a community or a game, these practices feel like cheating—like keeping aces up your sleeve in poker or handing out free cupcakes on the day of the class president election.

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Last month, Facebook changed its privacy policy, giving it the right to use your profile data to target advertising on other, not-owned-by-Facebook sites. Before it made the change, Facebook sought its users’ opinion in an open vote. An overwhelming 87 percent of respondents opposed the change. Facebook invalidated the result because only 300,000 people voted. To count, 30 percent of Facebook users—more than 270 million people—needed to participate.

Why should Facebook feel compelled to offer the participation at all—or even the semblance of it?

A company in a free society is welcome to offer a product to people under any terms it likes (with a few, pretty broad restrictions). At the same time, consumers are welcome to buy or use that product or not, as they choose.

That’s true until a product or service becomes such a fundamental part of life that people cannot meaningfully participate in civil society without using it—like telephones or electricity.

Can you really participate in civil society today without a Facebook account?

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Also this week, Tumblr introduced a new advertising product of its own, pinned posts. Advertising, something founder David Karp once swore would never appear on the site, only started on Tumblr in April, requiring that Tumblr revise its Terms of Service.

In the free world, we are used to feeling that our governments rule by our consent. When Tumblr unilaterally changes its TOS, it feels to us as if a tyrant has swooped in and made a new law without so much as a by your leave from us.

But Tumblr isn’t a country, and a Terms of Service is not a constitution. Even though Tumblr is a community to its users, it is a product to David Karp—and he can do whatever he wants with it.

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Should we be outraged when we witness a fellow user breaking the Terms of Service? Should companies be required to seek our input when they want to change their TOS?

The answers to those questions will evolve over the next decade or so, and they are major shifts in the social fabric, akin to the developments in the relationship between employers and employees in the late 19th century or between individual security and the government in the 1930s.

It is not merely within the TOS that this battle will be waged. ACTA was effectively defeated this week, but the question of copyright is very much involved in the questions above. What right do you have to share intellectual property? What right does the producer of intellectual property have to curtail it?

You could say many of the same things we’ve said above: Once I own something, it is my right to do with it what I want. But in the age of digital reproduction, should that include making copies? A company can sell me its intellectual property under whatever terms it likes. But to what lengths may it go to enforce those terms?

We live in historic times. The lines of battle are being drawn now for a war that will be waged between the government, major corporations, and average Internet users over the next decade. What we decide now will determine the status quo for the next century. Get ready.

Photo by maggie.byroo