Code is control: on Facebook and media

A friend asked me recently what I think of Facebook’s new plan to unveil a new media sharing platform on their site. Dan Gillmor’s column in The Guardian captures most of my thoughts thus far:

If you buy a refrigerator for your home, it’s yours. And once installed, it’s going to work the same way for the rest of its working life, letting you organise perishable food inside a cold space.

But in the world of technology, once you buy something – or, even more, become a user of a web-based service – there is a very good chance that it will change. And increasingly, the changes come with a take-it-or-leave it choice – which is to say, little to no choice at all.

The point is this: the more our products contain software – and increasingly, code is integral to the things we buy – the more likely it will be that these products are not really ours anymore. The companies that sell them (or, in the case of web services, allow us to use them) will increasingly make decisions that they can change at a whim, or a court order. Probably the most infamous example to date took place whenAmazon reached into its customers’ Kindle book readers in 2009 to delete copies of – irony alert – George Orwell’s 1984, which, it turned out, were being sold illegally by one of its online vendors.

I don’t expect bad faith to rule. Most of the changes will be upgrades, no doubt. But we will have no choice but to accept them. That’s the problem.

This is the right framework to think about this. We already give up so much control with our reliance on Facebook. This change seems likely to increase that. A couple things I’d add…

The refrigerator metaphor is interesting because even though you own your ‘fridge, you can’t use it without electricity. We can think about electricity as a fairly open framework; no single corporation can dictate the rules for devices plugging in. Similarly open standards – more open really – exist online. The web itself is governed by a set of open protocols driven forward by rough consensus (and running code). What we need to fear is the open standards web approach giving way to the corporate standards app approach. Every additional layer that we cede to single corporations is a step backward. That’s part of why I’m worried about Spotify.

The second thing I have to add… With respect to media, I’m particularly worried about Facebook and its approach to copyright enforcement. Will Facebook take an aggressive approach akin to Apple’s with iTunes and iPods? Or will it sit back and let the burden sit with the users? If Facebook tries to enforce IP rights as part of its sharing platform it will be truly damaging and a  step back for online culture. Users will presumably pressure them not to, but content creators (and their industry groups) will take the other side, and will be better organized. So that’s a piece I’ll be closely watching as this rolls out.