Tag Archives: Terms of Service

Tradeoffs and Terms of Service

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One thing I’ve learned about starting and growing a business is that all the important decisions are tradeoffs between two different goals (as opposed to choosing between two ways to achieve one goal). The most recent example of this is a set of changes we made to our Terms of Service, which we announced on Sunday. We haven’t updated our TOS in quite a while so there were a fair number of small language tweaks to make; those were easy. There was one change that led to an interesting tradeoff – the decision of whether we should plan to email all users for any further changes to the TOS.

On the one hand, we’re strong believers in openness and communication, because we know that our customers trust us with some of their most important data. On the other hand, as individuals we get a lot of email from services we’ve signed up for and it’s sometimes hard to sort out what’s important. And we’ve heard from users that many of them share this sense of “email overload,” which suggests we should be judicious about when we send out emails.

After talking to colleagues and looking at what other online services are doing we’ve decide to strike what we think is a healthy balance – we will email all of our users (more than two hundred thousand!) when we have a significant update to our Terms of Service, and the email we send will draw the reader’s attention to what changed. But when we make small language changes or fix a mistake or typo, we won’t email all of our users. You can always find a link to our TOS on our homepage, and I should note that our TOS only governs your right to use the service. Actions involving the use of and your access to your data are covered in our Privacy Policy, which has not changed. That policy states we will email you anytime we make changes.

We think this approach is the right tradeoff, though we expect that there will be users who still feel we email too much, and others who would prefer to be notified for every change. As always, feel free to leave a comment or email us with your feedback or questions about this issue.

If Facebook is a virtual nation, it’s a tyrannical one

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Earlier this week, we discussed Robert Scoble’s flaming of Twitter’s draconian “death sentence” account takedown procedure. This led to some folks complaining that Twitter doesn’t have an appropriate “appeals” process for account suspensions — as if Twitter was a nation-state and its users were citizens. Indeed, two weeks ago Brad Burnham explicitly said web servcies should be thought of as governments.

Social networks have courted this kind of high-minded self description for years, labeling themselves as “communities” rather than what they really are: businesses. The notorious Socialnomics stat video noted that Facebook’s “population” — if we care to characterize its user base in such terms — would make it the fourth largest country on Earth. Facebook itself has implied its own post-national identity by calling its user policy page the Facebook Site Governance page. This is a code of law, the language implies, rather than a service contract. Welcome to the Facebook Nation.

Except Facebook isn’t a nation. It’s a business.

You’re a Facebook customer, not a Facebook citizen. You have no inalienable rights, except those guaranteed by your actual government regarding privacy and protection from fraud. There is no Facebook constitution except for the Facebook Terms of Service — which Facebook can change at any time provided they give you a self-imposed three- to seven-day heads-up. Facebook graciously promises to put any proposed changes up for a user vote if at least 7,000 people comment on a policy change. That vote will be binding, however, only if 30% of the Facebook userbase votes in the “election.” That means about 150 million people have to vote, given Facebook’s current usage numbers. This is what’s known as the illusion of participation.

My only criticism of the above is that it’s disingenuous. Facebook has every right to run its product to the benefit of its (not yet publicly traded) shareholders. Yet, Facebook would like to be thought of as a virtual nation rather than a business, because it’s more meaningful to be a citizen than it is to be a customer. If you feel like a citizen, you’ll probably stay a customer. This mindset and perception benefits Facebook shareholders, but is in fact a detriment to Facebook customers — because it gives customers the idea they’re entitled to “appeals” and “due process” and a “vote.”

You’re entitled to none of the above.

If Facebook is a nation, it’s a tyranny — with Mark Zuckerberg as the charismatic dictator. You can be exiled from Facebookistan at the whim of the regime. You can be forced to use the local currency and store it in local banks, rather than the neutral third-party cash systems you enjoyed before. You can be forced to use approved state-run media for your business advertisements. And all of this, of course, is termed as a benefit for the glorious people.

Still want to be a citizen of Facebookistan? Don’t think that Twitteropolis is much better, either. And above all, don’t fall for the illusion of citizenship when really, you’re just a customer. And most times, you’re not even a paying one at that.

Facebook owes you nothing. You’re entitled to nothing. Go in with your eyes open to this basic fact. And, above all, I hope you have a backup plan.

Twitter and Facebook can kill you without cause or recourse

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Twitter "Account Suspended" message
Image by .imelda via Flickr

A week ago, Robert Scoble called out Twitter for issuing death sentences without warning, explanation, or obvious chance for appeal. A “death sentence” in this case refers to the complete suspension of a Twitter account, such that the owner can’t log in. Apparently a friend of Scoble’s joked about selling his Twitter account — an action which violates Twitter’s Terms of Service — so Twitter suspended the friend’s account before it contacted him to explain why, or what he could do about it. Eventually, the account was restored, but only because the friend of Scoble gave an explanation that satisfied Twitter. That time his account was down is time he’ll never get back, and there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.

Short form: Twitter can shut off your account any time it wants, and may only give it back if it feels like it. Addendum: Facebook has an almost identical policy and a history of acting on it.

We’ve discussed previously how rare it is to own a popular Twitter account. Facebook fans have a suggested dollar value, too. Yet these assets can be removed from your marketing portfolio without warning — and often without immediate explanation — for any perceived or assumed violation of terms of service that these service providers can and do change as they like.

Imagine if your phone company behaved in a similar fashion, disconnecting your phone number(s) because it didn’t care for the phone conversations you were having. Of course, that could never happen — and not (just) because of government regulation. You pay for your phone service, so the phone company has a certain financial incentive to care for your business. Facebook, Twitter, and most web apps are free. Zero dollars buys you zero service level guarantees. Never forget that you have access to Twitter and Facebook only so long as it is convenient and beneficial to them.

Hope you’ve got a backup plan.

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When help systems fail, everything fails

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Gmail down - 502 server error
Image by Remko van Dokkum via Flickr

Chris Brogan is one of the more tech-savvy micro-celebrities out there, so it’s both appropriate and terrifying that he found a glaring bug in Google’s account recovery system. Google reserves the right to suspend any account for “perceived violation of either the Google Terms of Service or product-specific Terms of Service,” which is to say any activity Google doesn’t like or is suspicious of. This happened to Brogan, for reasons as yet unrevealed (probably because Brogan gets floods of e-mail and Buzz traffic, which may make him look spammy when he isn’t). The problem chimed in when Google’s account recovery protocol wasn’t available to Brogan. They locked his account and he couldn’t get it back.

Specifically, to recover a fully locked Google App/Android combo account, you have to supply Google’s recovery system with your Android handheld’s phone number so they can text-message you a recovery code. Brogan’s problem? He was in Canada when the account was suspended, where he doesn’t have mobile phone service. He couldn’t comply with Google’s recovery protocol until he got back to the States days later. That meant days without Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Wave, and all the other Google tools that Brogan lovingly embraces.

Some might argue that Brogan’s was a rare use case, but the point is that given enough time, all of us are probably going to become a rare use case. Nobody is the typical user all the time, or even much of the time, so there are bound to be instances where you fall between the cracks of your service provider’s operating parameters.

Perhaps Brogan shouldn’t have been so reliant on a single provider — and thus a single point of failure — but he was, and he didn’t have a backup plan. Brogan loves to teach others. This time, his teachings came in the form of a cautionary tale.

Hope you’ve got a backup plan.