July 15, 2009 | By Jennifer Granick

Facebook and the Phone Companies Try to Lock You In

What does Facebook have in common with wireless phone companies like AT&T? Both companies try to lock customers in, even if we'd rather take our business elsewhere. Facebook is suing Power.com, a company that gives users a tool to pull copies of their own friends lists, postings and other information out of Facebook so that they can aggregate it with their other social networking platforms.

Similarly, CTIA - The Wireless Association, the trade group for the mobile phone industry, is trying to prevent customers of companies like AT&T Wireless and Sprint from taking their own phones with them when they switch providers. When businesses strive to maintain customer loyalty through improvement to the product or service offered, everyone benefits. But keeping your audience captive by holding hostage something that is valuable to the customer is bad for users and for innovation.

Facebook users insist on the right to access and delete their own data, as the company learned last month when it modified its terms of use, which had permitted users to remove their content from the site at any time, to give Facebook the right to use the content indefinitely. After a huge outcry, the company backpedaled, and reinstituted the old terms of service.

But that isn't stopping Facebook from trying to make it as difficult as possible for its customers to access and use their data with other social networking services. Facebook has sued Power.com, a website that lets users aggregate their friend lists and other data from all their social networking sites in one place. Facebook's legal claims include copyright infringement and computer hacking, but the foundation of the suit is the company's assertion that its terms of service prohibit customers from using automated tools to help them manage their data. While Facebook should prevent data-miners from scraping personal data, there is no reason other than customer lock-in to stop users from efficiently accessing their own profiles. If aggregation and migration of your social network information is a tedious manual process, maybe you'll stay on Facebook even if you'd rather go elsewhere.

Facebook's lock-in arguments are especially troubling because of its size. Facebook has 150 million users, and as its CEO likes to say, if it were a country it would be the eighth largest in the world. Such an expansive network may feel like a public space to users, but this lawsuit shows that Facebook acts like a private company. For example, Facebook recently decided to delete some medical marijuana groups it found controversial. Facebook's lock-in will make it more difficult for users who don't want to be silenced to take their business elsewhere. EFF has fought against the arguments Facebook is using to keep customers captive as amicus in the Perfect 10 case and in the Lori Drew matter, and we'll be watching the Power.com case closely.

Wireless phone providers are another culprit in the corporate war against user control. The CTIA and other wireless providers have argued that ">you should not be allowed to switch a compatible handset to a different network unless and until they tell you its OK. The Copyright Office rejected this view when it granted an exemption in 2006 to the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. After all, phone owners traveling to Europe, people who want to buy and activate a used phone, or handset refurbishers should be able to do so without fear of copyright liability. That exemption expires this year and EFF has asked for it to be renewed and expanded. Like Facebook v. Power, the phone unlocking issue pits users seeking to exercise their choice in the marketplace against companies seeking to use technological design and copyright law to lock them in.

Just as Facebook users rebelled last time, now may be the time for consumers to raise our collective voice. If you want to use a service that collects and aggregates all your social network data, you should be able to find and use such a tool. If you want to use the mobile phone you paid good money for on a different network, you should be able to make that decision.


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