The Vexing Problem of Shared Personal Data

share-data2.jpgI blogged earlier about the recent privacy kerfuffle with Facebook’s potentially permanent control over user data. In that post, I critiqued the “trust us” response that Facebook and so many companies make when responding to issues involving the use of people’s data.

There is, however, another argument Zuckerberg raises in response to Facebook’s data retention policy. He writes:

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 box and the other in their friend’s inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message.

facebook3.jpgZuckerberg is raising a rather thorny issue involving shared data. Although the “trust us” argument is rather specious, the shared data argument is much more difficult. One of the reasons why Facebook wants to maintain user data even after a user has left Facebook is that a lot of Facebook data is shared between friends. Facebook claims that it doesn’t want to allow users who leave Facebook to permanently delete their data from all parts of Facebook since their data appears on their friends’ Facebook pages. Zuckerberg also mentions the fact that email messages sent from one friend to another leave a copy in a friend’s inbox. One of the thorny issues with digital information is that it is shared.

What should Facebook do when a user wants to remove his or her data from all parts of Facebook, including their data on the pages of their friends? There are several ways of dealing with this:

(a) allow the user to remove it completely wherever it is;

(b) notify the people whose profiles contain the information and seek their consent before removing it; or

(c) not allow the user to remove it.

Facebook appears to have chosen (c). Before attacking or praising Facebook’s choice, consider the following questions:

1. Should you have the right to remove emails you sent from the recipients’ email inboxes or email accounts?

2. If you write a comment to a blog post of mine and then later want me to remove it, should I be compelled to do so? What if your comment is central to a particular discussion thread in the comments, so that removing it will make the discussion thread much harder to follow or understand?

3. If your information is automatically posted on a friend’s Facebook page, and then you leave Facebook, should you have the right to have the information that was put onto your friend’s Facebook page removed?

Regarding #1, I believe that people shouldn’t be able to automatically retract the emails they send to others, so that they disappear from the recipient’s inbox. Regarding #2, this is a thornier issue. I haven’t thought extensively about it, but my instinct would be to delete the comment at the commenter’s request. Regarding #3, which is one of the reasons why Facebook wants to maintain people’s data even after they quit Facebook, I don’t have an easy answer to this one.

What are your thoughts?

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7 Responses

  1. There’s a difference between making a copy of data and transferring physical control (e.g., sending an email) and sharing a reference to data (e.g., a photo URL). Zuckerberg’s assertions about shared data are self-serving. If I post a photo and make it available for friends, and later want to delete it, it should be simple matter for Facebook to remove the data and the references to the data. It’s a debatable detail in this case whether any comments or discussion attached to the photo would also be deleted or if they would simply revolve around an empty box where the photo used to be.

  2. Jim G says:

    The discussion is muddled because we’re acting as if all Facebook data is the same. Your questions are good, but need to be evaluated for each method Facebook allows of sharing data. Are we talking about posting to someone else’s wall? To your own wall? A status update? A comment on someone else’s status update? A photo? Data shared through some other application?

    We should also consider what seems to be possible and what they’re claiming. For example, users can remove (or at least seem to remove) any post on their own wall or post they made on another’s wall. Do the terms of service allow Facebook to act like it’s removing either of those, but keep a copy stored somewhere anyway?

    I think most things on Facebook, other than Wall posts, are conceptually more like shared references rather than transferred control. Regardless of the data structures Facebook uses, what I expect when I post a photo is that people will see my posting, not get copies of the photo. When I remove that photo, I expect it to vanish not only from my page but everyone else’s. And even with Wall posts, if it’s something that looks like I could delete, I’d expect deletion to remove the item, not just hide it.

    Very little on Facebook works like e-mail.

  3. David Schwartz says:

    Jim G: You are dead on. And that’s why the answer has to be “trust Facebook”. Since each category of data may require different handling, and some data has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, all Facebook can put in their policy is “trust us, or don’t”.

  4. clarinette says:

    May I ask a correlative question ?

    What if I send you – in the physical world – a letter and a picture of myself, would I be entitled to get them back if I changed my mind?

    What is different in the virtual world of Facebook?

    I would say, the ease of access, the scope of diffusion and the lack of knowledge awareness of the users on the rules of game. It is hard to realize how permanent and wide is the exposure of information over SNSs.

    Did my friend begged me to send him the letter?

    Maybe not. In any case, it took me some time to ‘materialize’ my sending and have a thought about it.

    Facebook encourage posting and users don’t always temper their acts. Should this fact entitle them to a right of retraction? Maybe the answer could be yes, at least in some cases. Anyway, who reads the TOU?


  5. clarinette says:

    From the International Herald Tribune

    Posted at 02/18/2009 07:00 AM

    After a wave of protests from its users, Facebook said it would withdraw changes to its so-called terms of service concerning the data supplied by its users.

  6. DevinB says:

    It seems to me like, as Clarinette mentioned, that a facebook message is less ‘shared’ than it is ‘given’. You are offering information (or insults, jokes, etc.) to another person. If you then remove your facebook, you can’t rescind the information.

    Similarly on a wall, if you write something there, the message remains on the wall, although it loses context if there is no ‘person’ that wrote it anymore.

    With a comment in a blog post, I believe that if possible it could be deleted. But if the message is in someway central, or even referenced by others, then the moderator should remove all signs of the person’s name. Make the post anonymous. Make all the other postings refer to “Anonymous'” post instead of “DevinB’s” post. The message is intact, but the person no longer has to be associated with it.

    In terms of photos, those should be removed forever. Because they reside within that person’s facebook page. And Facebook shouldn’t be maintaining something that is gone.

    The final aspect, of shared information. Such as addresses, phone numbers, etc. Facebook has NO EXCUSE to keep that information. Well, they have excuses, but the information becomes orphaned as soon as the person leaves facebook. If they change their home number, facebook doesn’t know that. So they have no reason to leave the information, because it is fundamentally a reference to an object which is no longer there.

    Quick summary.

    Messages should stay as they are GIVEN by the person.

    Photos should go because they are HOSTED by the person. (Technically hosted by facebook, but that’s not my meaning)

    Personal information should go because it is ABOUT the person.

  7. Obviously these are some really hard issues, but I am not as pessimistic as David Schwartz that you could develop some principled definitions of categories, along the lines DevinB and clarinette suggest.

    A further refinement: there is a difference between (a) language in the terms of service that warns information may remain, just as you left it, on other parts of the site after you remove your own page, and Facebook retains the right to keep those postings in place vs. (b) a blanket retention of all rights.

    Finally, I wonder how much of this is related to Facebook’s desire to retain its potentially valuable “digital dossier” (to use a Solove phrase) about a former user’s preferences. That raises completely different questions.