On a Social Networking Bill of Rights

I attended this year’s Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference and spent time in sessions on privacy in large data sets, deep packet inspection and network neutrality, the role of privacy in venture capital pitches, and what businesses are doing to secure privacy. In addition, a collection of us worked for some time to produce a rough draft of the Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights that was subsequently discussed and ratified by the conference participants. In this post, I want to speak to the motivations of the Bill of Rights, characteristics of social networking and Bill proper, a few hopeful outcomes resulting from the Bill’s instantiation and conclude by denoting a concerns around the Bill’s creation and consequent challenges for moving it forward.

First, let me speak to the motivation behind the Bill. Social networking environments are increasingly becoming the places where individuals store key information – contact information, photos, thoughts and reflections, video – and genuinely becoming integrated into the political. This integration was particularly poignantly demonstrated last year when the American State Department asked Twitter to delay upgrades that would disrupt service and stem the information flowing out of Iran following the illegitimate election of President Ahmadinejad. Social networks have already been tied into the economic and social landscapes in profound ways: we see infrastructure costs for maintaining core business functionality approaching zero and the labor that was historically required for initiating conversations and meetings, to say nothing of shared authorship, have been integrated into social networking platforms themselves. Social networking, under this rubric, extends beyond sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and encapsulate companies like Google and Yahoo!, WordPress, and Digg, and their associated product offerings. Social networking extends well beyond social media; we can turn to Mashable’s collection of twenty characteristics included in the term ‘social networking’ for guidance as to what the term captures:

  • Collaboration: Ask not what the Internet can do for you, but what you can do with other Internet users. – Jonny Rose
  • Network: Social media is a phenomenon which creates a personalized network for sharing digital content among all people in the cyberspace. - Rohan Aurora
  • Conversation: Tools or platforms that allow anyone/everyone to share information or engage in conversation. – Veena Mathew
  • Sharing: Social media = Sharing information through conversation. – Scot Chisholm
  • Relationships: Relationshipping on steroids. – Pat Graham-Block
  • Multi-dimensional: Social media is a multi-dimensional communication information system connecting people to people. -Peter Feuersenger
  • Inclusive: It’s a conversation in an instant with anyone, anywhere, anytime that gives control back to the individual & consumer in unpredented ways.” – Charles Ubaghs
  • Information: Information funneled to users from all angles. – Sarah Thomson
  • Community: Set of updated communication tools that allow us to build new communities at a time when our local community had almost been lost. – Jerry Daykin
  • Personalization: It is the ability to connect and see the world in your own way. The personalization of one of the greatest human achievements: communication! – Benjamin Fischbein
  • Empowering: Social media is an online renaissance empowering people with influence to facilitate conversations around shared ideas. – Mark Blackman
  • A Radical Shift in Communication: The radical shift from one-way broadcast type communications to dialog and conversation using web based tools. - Joe Buhler
  • Real-time: “Social Media is on-demand, real time interaction, that uses technology to enable genuine engagement with others around media vs simply sharing data with them.” – Corina Newby
  • People: Social Media is the instantaneous aggregation and creation of content by the people, of the people, for the people, on the social web. – Eric Pena
  • Content Distribution: Social media consists of online technologies that facilitate the creation and distribution of content. – David J. Perdue
  • Self-expression: Social Media’s my friend. I can finally broadcast my belief in God, my likes in music, my emotional state & my dinner all from my fingertips – E. A. Freire
  • Unity: The never ending drive for humans desire to unite. – Sean Farrell
  • Dynamic: Social media is dynamic user-generated content coming from the bottom up, which bypasses static media forms through adding a social layer. – Anees Younis
  • Discovery: Social media is communication, friending, family, media, learning and discovery at one click. – Glenn K. Bolton
  • Power of the Crowd: Social media is the ability to put out a message and having worldwide responses via email, text, tweet, or whatever form in a matter of seconds. – Lilian Ongelungel

While never specifically stated or enunciated, it was in light of these kinds of characteristics that the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy participants developed the Social Networking Bill of Rights:

  1. Honesty: Honor your privacy policy and terms of service
  2. Clarity: Make sure that policies, terms of service, and settings are easy to find and understand
  3. Freedom of speech: Do not delete or modify my data without a clear policy and justification
  4. Empowerment : Support assistive technologies and universal accessibility
  5. Self-protection: Support privacy-enhancing technologies
  6. Data minimization: Minimize the information I am required to provide and share with others
  7. Control: Let me control my data, and don’t facilitate sharing it unless I agree first
  8. Predictability: Obtain my prior consent before significantly changing who can see my data.
  9. Data portability: Make it easy for me to obtain a copy of my data
  10. Protection: Treat my data as securely as your own confidential data unless I choose to share it, and notify me if it is compromised
  11. Right to know: Show me how you are using my data and allow me to see who and what has access to it.
  12. Right to self-define: Let me create more than one identity and use pseudonyms. Do not link them without my permission.
  13. Right to appeal: Allow me to appeal punitive actions
  14. Right to withdraw: Allow me to delete my account, and remove my data

Those familiar with data protection policies and laws will recognize that many elements of FIPS, OECD guidelines, and national regulations are latent and/or guiding many of these rights. The point is that these rights are the minimum expectations that companies should guarantee social networking users; dropping any particular right leads to a strong deficiency in what individuals can expect from companies and do to their own data. In light of the use of these systems for democratic organization, to announce illegal or oppressive social conditions, and increasingly use of the networks to replace traditional telephony it is key that the social facet of the bitscape is provided protections from onerous corporate control, manipulation, or aggressive anti-privacy monetization schemes. Now, it may seem somewhat absurd that corporations should be required to mediate how they use data they’ve aggregated, but corporations can either choose to adopt some modicum of reasonableness when it comes to how they aggregate data and clearly inform users of aggregation, utilization, and dissemination policies or else be regulated by government forces. If Facebook had a set of principles that strongly reflected the Bill of Rights, a set of principles they adhered to, then the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada might not have issued a decision concerning Facebook and its (failed) privacy practices. In effect, adopting the Rights denoted above could limit regulatory intrusions while also letting companies compete on the metric of privacy and freedom.

While the user communities could experience positive benefits were social networking companies to adopt the Bill, the process by which the Bill has been created and ratified is itself somewhat problematic. While the conference attracted a diverse set of individuals, those individuals were far from reflective of the world user-community of social networking services. This leads to concerns surrounding the diversity of points of view that were (or, more importantly, were not) included in the drafting and finalization process. Further, no element of the Bill includes a reflexive characteristic that enables modification of stated Rights, nor does the Bill state that Rights can be added or subtracted depending on contributions from others. Instead, there is an up or down ‘vote’ of the Bill: in a conference that regularly noted the challenges surrounding binary access controls we are left with a binary acceptance/refusal metric. We are faced with a ‘dead’ or static Bill: it’s failure to incorporate reflexivity and closedness to the diversity of discursive possibilities emerging as others enter into discussions about the Bill leads to it failing Habermasian and Kantian demands for being a legitimate constitutional document. As such, we are left not so much with a Bill of Rights as a closed Statement of Rights. The former would have been truly exciting, whereas the latter is strategic and useful, but is disingenuously appropriating the term ‘Bill of Rights’ for rhetorical purposes.

Does this mean that the Bill/Statement is necessarily doomed? Of course not, though even participants at the conference recognized that the Bill will likely operate more as a point for subsequent regulatory filings and rhetorical turns than a binding agreement that social networks will consent to. Further, another Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web was produced three years ago and, despite the attention that document received in the blogosphere, I don’t think that it ever really entered either the public mind or that of major social networking companies. I have doubts that the most recent Bill/Statement will be any more successful. To move it forward will require buy-in from major social networks and, to date, Facebook is the largest and only company to respond to the Bill/Statement proper (and in a lukewarm manner, at best). Nothing (that I know of) has been heard from other social networking companies in anything more than a ‘we support privacy, and have privacy policies available on our websites.’ As a result the prospects for moving the Bill/Statement forward seem dim, though perhaps another person or group will successfully convince companies to adopt the document and thus extend its range of possible uses beyond filings and rhetorical spins.

Christopher Parsons

I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Citizen Lab in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and a Principal at Block G Privacy and Security Consulting. My research interests focus on how privacy (particularly informational privacy, expressive privacy and accessibility privacy) is affected by digitally mediated surveillance and the normative implications that such surveillance has in (and on) contemporary Western political systems. I’m currently attending to a particular set of technologies that facilitate digitally mediated surveillance, including Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), behavioral advertising, and mobile device security. I try to think through how these technologies influence citizens in their decisions to openly express themselves or to engage in self-censoring behavior on a regular basis.