Facebook content, whose property is it anyway?

Earlier this year Carole Cadwalladr and Duncan Campbell wrote an article for The Guardian entitled “Facebook’s global lobbying against data privacy laws”. In that article the authors described how Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, considers European data protection legislation a “critical” threat to Facebook and undertook efforts to head-off “overly prescriptive” new laws. The data protection laws, Ms. Sandberg considers to be a threat to Facebook, are generally intended to protect the data of Facebook users, stored by Facebook, from misuse.

Apparently Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has had a change of heart from the position taken by Ms. Sandberg because he recently announced his vision to transform Facebook into a “privacy-focused platform” ( https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47477677 ). Mr Zuckerberg said he wants to develop the social media network into one focused around privacy, reducing permanence, and secure data storage. Zuckerberg did not offer a firm timeline for his vision, but said changes would take place “over the next few years”.

The apparent change in Facebook’s policies, with regard to use of the data of Facebook Friends is refreshing for most members of Facebook because they’ve been concerned Facebook believes “possession is nine-tenths of the law”, and once their data is stored on Facebook servers Facebook would assert the data is Facebook’s and Facebook can use it to generate revenue. To some degree this is indeed what Facebook has asserted but with a slight twist.

In 2009 when Facebook changed its terms of service to no longer allow users to delete their data when they leave Facebook it created an uproar made especially acute after Yahoo refused to grant access to the e-mails of Lance Cpl. Justin M. Ellsworth by his parents after Cpl. Ellsworth was killed in Iraq. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did his best to calm the uproar and explain his position on ownership of data exchanged among Facebook “Friends”.

According to Zuckerberg, when you share your data with a Facebook friend, whether it be an email or a photo, it becomes the Friend’s data as well. ‘You cannot normally rescind data you share with other people in an e- mail’. So why should a social network be any different? Zuckerberg explains his position this way:

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created — one in the person’s sent messages (Outbox ) and the other in their Friend’s inbox.”

“Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this more clear.

While Zuckerberg makes it sound like there are physically distinct “In and Outboxes” maintained for each Facebook Friend, it’s more likely that “In and Outboxes” are virtual characteristics of all messages, represented by “relationships” between a single database instance of a message and a database instance for both a “sender” and “receiver” of the message. That way Facebook can present a chronology of messages associated with Friends when required to do so while at the same time maintain Relational database rules regarding normalization and avoid data redundancy.

While Zuckerberg’s position is not that Facebook owns your data, it’s not much different. It’s more like Facebook is the custodian of data that became the data of the Facebook Friend with whom you shared it at the time it was associated with the Friend’s “inbox”.

In 1788 William Blake invented a method of relief etching he called ‘Illuminated Printing’. Illuminated printing made it possible to print both the text of his poems and images he created to illustrate the poems using the same copper plate, like those pictured here, using a rolling press. This led to the production of the Large Color Prints or monotypes of 1795, like “The School Boy” pictured below. Illuminated Printing was Blake’s supreme achievement as a graphic artist.

If Blake printed an illuminated book for another poet Blake certainly would not be entitled to rights to the poet’s words or any illustrations the poet created. Blake may be entitled to the plates used to print the poems and any illustrations Blake created to illustrate the poet’s works but clearly the poet would be the owner of the words themselves and would have the right to publish them on any other medium he might choose.

Blake’s plates are little different from a Facebook database and simply because Facebook created the database it is not the owner of any data stored in its database any more than Blake would be the owner of the words of another poet Blake etched on a plate.

If I write a poem and include it in a message I send to a Facebook Friend using Facebook, certainly Facebook cannot claim it or the Friend to whom I sent the poem has a right to the words of the poem simply because they are included in a Facebook message or a Facebook database!!!!!!

In addition a poet should be allowed to remove his poem from Facebook’s database any time he chooses Just like he would be allowed to stop Blake from continuing to print illuminated books even though Blake retained possession of plates that contained the poet’s words.

Facebook may just be coming to an understanding of literary property William Blake did two centuries ago.

Husband for 49 years. Dad forever! Very lucky man.