Social networking sites: who owns the content?

This is not a legal or philosophical argument, but what I, as a lay person, think about the issue of ownership of content on social networking sites such as Facebook and Google+, and by extension materials hosted on other sites and services, for example, Blogger. The conclusion I draw is that there is a sort of joint ownership between the user and the social networking sites. This is one reason why I have been hesitant to use any social networking site or blogging platform as a replacement for this website as an outlet for my thoughts, or to use them as primary focus of my online activities. As will be argued later, it’s not the likelihood of content being deleted or becoming inaccessible at social networking sites or blogging platforms that bothers me, but that such a possibility exists.

I am not here to define property or ownership or to interpret the terms and conditions or the terms of service of individual services or products: these are questions best dealt by lawyers, philosophers and legal philosophers. Indeed, concepts such as property and ownership in legal terms are difficult and probably inappropriate to apply in this instance. However, central to my definition of ownership is the control that a party has over the content, and my contention is that both the users and sites have more or less equal control over the materials. Content creators, the users of sites and services, have control over the materials: they can create, edit, and delete content as they please. The users do not need to seek permission from the sites to do so. They can simply delete everything and stop using the services if they so wish. But, the point is that it’s not one way: the site or the service often enjoys similar powers to delete materials it deems contrary to the agreed terms. It allows other parties to reproduce the materials when they are ‘shared’. While it’s unlikely that it will delete materials in a truly arbitrary manner, it reserves the right to interpret where the boundaries are drawn.

If the social networking sites were to delete content for violations of agreed terms, then often the user has little practical recourse. If the user were the sole owner or the stronger owner within the joint ownership, then he or she should be able to recover the content, because he or she owns it. This clearly is not the case. When the content is deleted, the user normally tries to recover his or her content through the internal system of the site or service claiming not ownership but adherence to the terms, conditions and policies. To repeat, users are not demanding access to ‘their’ content by the virtue of ownership which had been unjustly taken away from them, but on the unreasonableness of the sites in interpreting the relevant passages of the agreement.

The problem of co-ownership, as it were, is exacerbated if the social networking site or service were to go bankrupt or disappear, or if it were to stop supporting the product because it became unsustainable or unprofitable. Usually the agreements have a clause to the effect that the service or the product can be discontinued without warning at the sole discretion of the site. Could the content creators in such instances, gain access to ‘their’ materials? It would make sense for the company to allow them to retrieve their data, but they are probably not obliged to do so. Again, while the site may not have absolute and arbitrary right to do whatever it likes with the content, the user does not have an automatic right to their content hosted on that site.

Different people use social networking sites differently for different purposes, so as users of sites must make their own risk assessment. Call me paranoid, and I probably am, but the mere existence of the possibility that some act of God or other extraneous event, as well as misunderstanding or a contentious interpretation of content can lead to unilateral deletion of the content by the site without recourse or possibility of recovery is not a risk I’m willing to take. I have several back-ups of this site, and if there are problems with the hosting for example, or something catastrophic happens, I still have a means of putting the site back on in a relatively short period of time, so long as the internet as we know it remains. It is this knowledge, that I have a greater control, a stronger degree of ownership over my materials, which is crucial to me, and something I do not wish to relinquish. A joint ownership of my materials with social networking sites or blogging platform thus is not my cup of tea.