Name Your Price

Woody Brown

Certainly you have seen recently the rash of posts on Facebook that look a little something like this:

"I think I'm an activist."

"I think I'm an activist."

This happens once every six months or so.  The notion that Facebook will ravage your profile and whore out to some multinational corporate entity for even the smallest amount of advertising revenue the grainy MacBook photos you took of yourself when you were sixteen spreads like a virus.  Everyone starts exercising his penchant for legalese (or rather, for copying and pasting legalese) and newsfeeds across the globe are suddenly inundated with insistent declarations of copyright and privacy.

It may come as a small surprise, then, that these statements do nothing and have no standing in any court of anything.   For one, simply mentioning UCC 1-308, one of the laws commonly cited in these posts, is not the same as signing one’s name to a contract without prejudice and thereby retaining any rights one may have unknowingly agreed to surrender.  To do so would be like if ten years ago I signed up for a church mailing list and got a letter from them yesterday and then I said they violated my First Amendment rights.  Not to mention the Rome Statute, which the post above also cites as supporting its retention of the author’s rights on Facebook.  The Rome Statute is the treaty that established the International Criminal Court.  How that has any bearing on whether or not PepsiCo puts pictures of your dog in its banner ads is beyond me.  Also, the Berne Convention, which most posts incorrectly call the Berner Convention, only requires its signatories to recognize copyrights of authors from other countries the same way they would recognize the copyrights of their own nationals.  This means nothing if the person from another country has no copyright at all.  But even if these posts did not invoke those three legal talismans, they would still mean absolutely nothing.  That is because a Facebook status update is not the same as a legal notification to Facebook.  But—bear with me—even if it were, the posts would still mean absolutely nothing.

Do you want to know why?  It is because when we signed up for Facebook profiles, we voluntarily relinquished all of our rights to the content we upload to the website.  And not only that—we were actually notified of this.  We were told about this and we still went ahead and threw thousands of pictures of our underage-drinking selves into Mark Zuckerberg’s sweaty, too-warm hands.  We were never protected by any sort of statute of anything, and in fact we were told several times that Facebook reserved the right to actively not protect our online existences.  This is why I can post a screenshot of what Mr. Alexander said above and I don’t even have to redact his name or anything.  I can just claim it as mine and use it on this website to generate hits.  Welcome to the internet.

And for the record, the fact that Facebook is now a publicly traded company also means nothing for our privacy.  The Facebook post seems to operate on a layman’s understanding of what it means to be a “public capital entity.”  To be publicly traded does not mean everyone can now come and take whatever crappy prose poetry we uploaded in high school and make a ton of money off of it.  In fact, that’s always been the case and it happens all the time.  It just never happened to us, probably because the prose poetry we wrote in high school wasn’t that good.  The fact that Facebook is publicly traded may actually be a good thing for our privacy because if the company does enough scummy, sketchy bullshit in order to make money off of our original content it will presumably have to answer to its shareholders, who might conceivably object by retaining the rights to their wallets and telling Zuckerberg to relax.

If the history of Facebook’s rise to popularity is any indication, however, this is not very likely.  Few people have objected in any meaningful fashion to any of the totally egregious and horrifying ways the website has sold our stuff and made money off of it.  Instead, the hundreds of millions of people who use Facebook every day choose to object by posting a meaningless bit of faux-legal bullshit to the same website that is violating their rights in the first place.  Think of how hilarious this is.  That’d be like if I objected to YouTube’s revenue model by uploading a video to YouTube of myself talking about my objections.  If the video were to go viral, it could make a significant amount of money for YouTube, thereby achieving the exact opposite result that I would’ve intended in the first place.  It doesn’t matter what you say or why you say it; as long as you say it on Facebook, Facebook makes some amount of money.

Not to mention the final claim of privacy: “The content of this profile is private and confidential information.”  No it isn’t.  Why should it be?  We have taken no pains to protect anything at all.  The entire point of a Facebook profile is that it is public, we use it to talk to other people and show them shit and poke them and cyberbully them.  What we seem to want is for our content to be public when we want other people to see it and private the rest of the time, and we want Facebook to be magnanimous and not at all profit-driven and to promise not to peek at our unprotected photos that we have happily given away in the public sphere.    

The real problem with viral posts like the one above is that they encourage the illusion that users have some sort of power over what happens with the content they upload to sites like Facebook.  The truth of the matter is that they have none, and further that they have none because they chose to have none.  It is as if everyone thinks Facebook might just be some great service that is always free and wonderful and that would never, say, take advantage of the fact that its users upload extraordinarily valuable photographs and demographic information hundreds of millions of times every day.  Facebook now owns all of the data advertising agencies could ever want.  What do people like to see?  What do they like to eat?  Just consult Facebook, which literally keeps track of what people Like.

The truth is that if a service is free for you to use, you’re not the customer—you’re for sale.

Woody Brown lives and waits in Buffalo, NY.