Web democracy

This post will be an exercise in futurology. I predict that in the next few decades we will see some interesting debates about the legal rights of internet users over the content they create and their personal information, and their right to scrutiny and decision power over how their flux of information is handled by corporations.

Say you create a social network website that allows people to upload their music libraries, which will be available to other users of the website. With the information gathered from the network of users, the website offers me “recommendations” of music I may like. The recommendation value of a particular piece of music may be based on the likelihood that users with libraries similar to mine also have that piece of music in it.

Now say you are offered a lot of money from a music distribution company to tweak the results of the recommendations so that certain artists will be recommended more often than others. Should you accept the offer? Should you have the right to accept the offer?

This dilemma is no different from that faced by radio stations about the playlists they air (although radio is not nearly as influential a media today as it was in the past, I believe). But while the question has been legally ignored in the past (as far as I know. Which is not much. But this is just a blog post so stop being picky), the 21st century may bring a whole new light to it. And to many other similar problems which never actually existed before.

That’s because in the past it seemed to be virtually impossible to enforce anything about this. How are we going to know that they have changed the playlists? Even without any influence from commercial interests, it would come down to the expertise of a DJ in feeling what kind of music his audience would like to hear. How can we know the DJ hasn’t skewed his judgement? It’s not like there was an algorithm to decide about playlists in the past!

But now there is! The website last.fm (by the way, here is my Music Profile) uses some sort of algorithm  — which I don’t know precisely, but which no doubt uses data gathered from people with similar interests — to provide me with recommendations. Technically, we could now know (or be able to have a high degree of confidence on) whether websites like last.fm are skewing their recommendations to fit commercial interests.

In more important issues, we could know how Facebook or Google decide on the advertisement they provide. We could know how Google ranks the websites they display after a search. We should be able to have some degree of trust that Google isn’t reading our Gmail or using the information in our private content for their commercial purposes.

You could argue that once an user enters an agreement — you know, that interminable fine print in those “check the box to use our services” screens — with these companies, they accept those terms and are subsequently bound by it (Some people have analysed the fine print on Facebook’s Terms of Agreement really carefully, and it’s scary).

But when the user base reaches a certain point, we are not anymore talking only about a non-contextual transaction between an individual and a company, but between a population and a company. And here the issue becomes more complicated.

Users value not only the content generated by individual websites, but increasingly they value the relations they maintain and the content they share within the network: the friends they have added to Facebook, the music they can be recommended by other people with similar interests, their MSN contacts and their associated chat history, and many other similar information exchanges.

Some could say that open-source software could provide an alternative, and if people don’t change to open-source, they’ll have to accept the terms of agreement offered by the commercial providers. But commercial companies will likely always have more resources to make their software attractive, and so people will likely always have an inclination to use commercial software.

I don’t have an option to join an open-source social network. If I don’t like the terms of Facebook’s or Orkut’s agreement, I just can’t be on a social network. This is a very different situation from that of my agreement with Gmail: if I don’t like Gmail, I can with some ease switch to the similar service provided by a plethora of different email providers. But I’m stuck with Facebook an Orkut if I want a social network. And so are all the other users.

The network of users controlled by Facebook cannot be reconstructed without a coordinated effort of all users in the network. The amount of cooperation required to make all users on Facebook migrate (and add precisely the same content with precisely the same relations within the network) from Facebook to, say, Orkut, Google’s rival, would be comparable to a war effort. There is a huge inertia in that system. The communities of users represented on Facebook or Orkut are attached to those providers in much the same way that communities of people are attached to their country.And as the complexity of those networks increases, this fact will be even more evident.

Should those communities be able to change the terms with which they are bound to their “governing body”, i.e., the companies that serve, coordinate and control their interactions? How could that happen? Since some of those network are composed of people in different countries, how can their rights be handled by the present systems in power? Or should we just leave it to free market? Can the interplay of competition, offer and demand alone lead us to more democratic Terms of Agreement to rule over our increasingly complex virtual interactions?

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