Where you stand with Google and Facebook: a comparative view

Facebook logo.pngFacebook and Google probably have the biggest presence in our online lives, in varying degrees. To many Facebook is a complete social and media service and there is little need to venture outside facebook.com. Facebook users can share photos, videos, notes, links and aspects of their personal lives with their friends. They can create business pages to promote their business, message their friends using Facebook Chat and Facebook’s messaging platform. From a social perspective it is a pretty complete and compelling solution.

Google logo small.pngThere are also a significant number of people who regard Google’s services as the extent of their Internet experience. Google provides them with Gmail, Google Calendar, Youtube, Picasa, Blogger and, most importantly, Search. As the dominant search engine Google has become synonymous with Internet search, so much so that the word “Google” has become a verb. Google influences a significant portion of most Internet users’ online experience and that influence is bound to increase as Google incorporates more and more social elements into its services including Friend Connect and its Open Social implementations.

Facebook’s and Google’s traffic trends are also beginning to merge (at least Facebook’s is as it grows by roughly 5 million users a week):

Ignoring terms of use is naive and dangerous

The tremendous influence Google and Facebook have on our lives, between them, means that it is important to pay careful attention to the terms that govern their services. Contrary to a popular perception that terms of use are largely irrelevant, they are critical documents that both create the legal framework the service operates and represent the service’s ethos itself. I’ve talked about why terms and conditions matter previously so take a look at that post if you haven’t read it already.

The tendency to disregard terms of use or dismiss them as necessary but soon forgotten wallpaper is alarming. Consider, for a moment, what would happen if a dispute arose with one of these services. The dispute would be decided with reference to the contractual terms and other relevant legal principles governing the use and provision of the service concerned. In other words, a court would apply the terms of use and other terms you agreed to when you started using the service and hold you to it. Anyone complaining that Facebook or Google, for example, misused their personal information or their content would have to first contend with what Facebook’s or Google’s (or the relevant service’s) terms of use allow them to do with that personal information or content. At that point the terms of use become critical because, after all, you agreed to them and agreeing to terms of use has pretty profound implications for you as a user.

Comparing Google’s and Facebook’s terms of use

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare Google’s and Facebook’s terms of use in light of their influence. This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive review but rather a comparison of the highlights of each service’s terms of use as well as a preview of what we can expect from Facebook’s new terms of use. The results of this informal review are revealing. I found Facebook’s proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities very encouraging in a number of respects. The Statement will, together with a proposed Facebook Principles, form the new legal framework of Facebook’s service when they are finalised and published.

The Statement will effectively replace its current terms of use and the Facebook Principles will serve as an interpretive guide when there is doubt about how the Statement should be applied to a set of circumstances. It places more emphasis on values and principles while retaining the legal framework provided by the Statement. In this way Facebook’s governance begins to emulate nation states which have binding constitutional principles which are the standard by which that nation’s laws are measured. Very apt considering Facebook’s userbase is comparable to a number of sizable countries.

The basics

As a starting point I took a look at some of the preliminary issues like when the terms of use will apply to users and what happens when the terms are changed? Do the changes apply immediately or is there some other process?

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Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Principles introduces an interesting collaborative approach to amendments to its terms. Not only will Facebook give users notice of changes to the Statement but it intends enabling users to influence changes where there are sufficient numbers of people who comment on proposed changes. This makes the process of amending its Statement democratic and this represents a significant departure from the way terms of use are commonly established and amended.

The license

The license is perhaps one of the most significant provisions in a service’s terms of use. The license determine what a service can do with your content and the more permissive the license is the more it resembles ownership and alarms users. I recorded a brief explanation why permissive licenses are dangerous because they begin to approximate ownership and while these services don’t claim ownership of your content, the rights you grant them may well approximate ownership to the point where there is little distinction in practice:

Google’s license and Facebook’s current content license are similar in many ways but, on the whole, Google’s is preferable as it is somewhat narrower. Facebook’s proposed license in the Statement is a definite improvement over its current license and, in some respects, it is an improvement over Google’s license.

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Generally speaking

For the most part Google’s current terms of use are preferable to Facebook’s current terms of use. Facebook’s proposed new terms are, for the most part, a significant improvement on Facebook’s current terms and address most of the problems users had with Facebook’s previous terms of use and the difficulties with the current terms of use. The Statement isn’t final yet (or even what it could be) but it is definitely a move in the right direction. It addresses most of my concerns about the retracted terms of use and the current terms of use and I feel more comfortable about Facebook as a social network and a potential platform for businesses to market their products and services.

I didn’t include Google’s or Facebook’s privacy policies in this comparison and I would like to do that in a further post. There are concerns about how Google and Facebook handle users’ personal information so this is an important issue, especially given that between Google and Facebook, they know quite a lot about us and about our habits and preferences.

As always I would love to know what your thoughts are. Please feel free to comment below and share your opinions.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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