Friending the constitution: a social media bill of rights (SXSW2011)

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When does a technological revolution become a part of the fabric of society? If it’s just about pure numbers, then social media passed that marker some time towards the end of the last decade, when the combined audience of social media platforms breached the 1-billion user mark. But with ubiquity often comes regulation: if Facebook or Twitter are truly social “utilites” then do they need to be policed in the same way that electricity or water providers are?

One vital component missing from the wild west of the current social media landscape is any kind of universally accepted guidelines about how these networks should interact with their legions of users. Current laws are hopelessly inadequate to cope with many of the challenges these new kinds of interactions and relationships present .

Although the idea of a bill of rights for social network users has been floating around for several years, a group of lawyers and other interested parties has now drafted a bill of 14 rights and given the world an opportunity to vote on which should be adopted. This Social Media Users’ Bill of Rights (or #SMUBOR for short – hey, they are lawyers, not marketers) grew out of high profile incidents like Facebook’s unilateral changes to its privacy policies in November/December 2009 and the Google Buzz debacle.

The rights, mainly governing the interactions between network providers and users, have the a ring of authenticity to them, quite unlike many laws and regulations. They are:

  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

In a fascinating panel discussion at this year’s South by South West conference, some of the drafters of the bill introduced the rights and answered our questions on the topic.

Although wary of regulation, Christina Gagnier (@gagnier – an IP and technology lawyer) pointed out that privacy principles need to be need to be baked into new platforms – not tacked on as an afterthought. She is concerned that because there is no international body of law on online rights, there is no recourse for violations. But rather than over-regulate and kill entrepreneurial spirit, Gagnier advocates making the guidelines clear and pushing for normative standards.

This was echoed by Lisa Borodkin (@lisaborodkin – a media and technology lawyer) who said “The more clear we can make (these rights), the lower the probability that users’ privacy will be breached by companies.” Asked when these rights kick in, Lisa said “These are natural rights – imagine a world without terms of service documents. What would people naturally expect from companies?”

One point raised by the audience stood out: why is user data always vested within the networks themselves? Why don’t we host our own data as independent “nodes”, and then allow networks access to it? This immediately made me think of the South African startup TrustFabric, who are doing just that.

The panel were very open to the idea that more rights should be added, or that rights should be modified or even scrapped to better suit the global social media user community. You can vote on and comment on the proposed bill of rights here – it’s a unique opportunity in the history of a technology – so get involved.

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