Will the real Web 2.0 stand up?

Written by Andrew Rens on February 25th, 2009

Old and a new media have been enjoying the gefuffle over the last few weeks as Facebook imposed new terms of use and then reverted to its previous conditions while it tries to respond to outcry by users. Paul Jacobson followed developments closely at WebtehLaw

The devil, as always when one deals with law and lawyers, is in the detail. That detail can obscure what we can learn about Web 2.0 from this episode.

What is Web 2.0 or as Larry Lessig terms it, the read/write web? Is it best exemplified by Facebook or by Wikipedia? It is about harvesting content or about creating community?

The issue of copyright licences has become important to ordinary people because copyright law as it now exists simply doesn’t work for the digital world. In the hard copy world there were all kinds of things people could do without restriction by copyright, like read a page, but in the digital world for me to read a friend’s page on Facebook requires that Facebook makes a copy on its server, and then “sends” a copy to me as a swarm of information packets, maybe with cached copies on the way, and then possibly my ISP’s server and certainly my computer make other copies just so that I can read it. All those copies can’t be made without permission under our industrial revolution copyright law so Facebook needs some kind of licence, the question is, what kind of licence?

Problems raised with the new terms were that they claimed to give Facebook a right to use whatever people posted even after people left Facebook. So say you posted pictures of your baby to the site because you wanted friends and family to see them but Facebook used the pictures publicly to sell baby products on a Facebook page. They were allowed to do that under the old terms, and since they’ve reverted to them they can do so now. BUT under the new terms if you decided to leave Facebook because they were using your baby pictures to sell baby products Facebook could carry on doing that. The new terms claimed that the very wide licence Facebook had couldn’t be revoked. It also said that even if you only linked to something, like a photograph on Flickr then Facebook had the wide licence over what you had linked to, even if you had used different licensing terms at the original site.
Compare that to Flickr the photo sharing site which says that you can specify what licence your photograph is under, you could choose a Creative Commons licence for example.
People were upset because they don’t always pay attention to a site’s conditions but they pay attention to how their content is used, and if unhappy with a site they often simply leave the site, but with the new terms and conditions leaving wouldn’t change how your content is used

So what could motivate the change? The original rationale hasn’t emerged. One possibility is some confusion over what is valuable on the read/write web. Facebook’s market valuation is based on millions of people sharing their content, so if those millions left then it wouldn’t be worth much. It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that its the content that is valuable instead of the community which shares the content, and to try to hang on to that content. This kind of fallacy is still unfortunately found far too often when people think that “intellectual property” is something other than a metaphor, and that the Web 2.0 is about harvesting content instead of creating community.

So what licence does Facebook need to host community?

The conditions should say that Facebook is allowed to make copies of and distribute your content but only to those people whom you are allowing to see the content, for site maintenance, and for no other reason. Facebook doesn’t really need more than that.

Is Facebook the read/write web? Or are the an alternatives like Flickr where users set the permissions for their photographs more true to the read/write web?. Who will control social network? Participants or large commercial enterprises?

Will the real Web 2.0 stand up?


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