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Fighting Facebook, a Campaign for a People’s Terms of Service
Evan Selinger   May 22, 2013   The Nation  

Social media companies say consumers’ loss of privacy is just the cost of doing business. But what would happen if they actually had to bargain with users on equal footing?

Facebook is on the defensive again. Members of the social networking site sued the company for co-opting their identities in online ads, and Facebook agreed to revise its “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” and offer a $20 million settlement. The case has drawn less attention than the dorm disputes portrayed in The Social Network, but the impact is far wider. An underpublicized aspect of the dispute concerns the power of online contracts, and ultimately, whether users or corporations have more control over life online.
Similar class action suits have been leveled against the popular photo-sharing application Instagram, and the mother of all platforms, Google. Fed up with the “contracts” these companies force on their customers, some people are finally striking back.

While a few of the particulars here are new—filtered photos or copyrightable tweets—the legal dilemma is actually very old. As social media users, our rights are established through non-negotiable, one-sided and deliberately opaque “terms of service” contracts. These documents are not designed to protect us. They are drafted by corporations, for corporations. There are few protections for the users—the lifeblood powering social media.

In return for driving the profits of social media companies, users get free software. But too often, the cost is unpredictable vulnerability: confusing, generic contracts that give companies control over your data, prose, pictures, personal information and even your freedom to simply quit a given website.

This is a classic example of form contract abuse—when a single, powerful party pushes a contract onto a disparate group of other parties.

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Evan Selinger is Associate Professor of Philosophy and MAGIC Center Head of Research Communications, Community & Ethics, both at Rochester Institute of Technology. Evan publishes extensively in the areas of philosophy of technology, privacy, and ethics/policy of science and technology. To enhance public debate about ethics, Evan regularly supplements his peer-reviewed scholarship with outreach articles in places like The AtlanticWiredSlateForbes,The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation.

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