September 4, 2007

There is Now a “Bill of Rights” for Users of the Social Web

Ever since I started working on the “open social web”, I’ve wanted to co-author some kind of crisp and clean manifesto or “bill of rights” to explain to all the social sites what their users will increasingly ask of them, and what specifically these sites can do to “be open”. While there’s plenty of room for discussion about various implementation details, it’s become increasingly clear to me that if sites just do a few things right for their users in terms of openness–both technically and by having the right spirit–the rest can be layered and tweaked and otherwise made to “just work” for users.
Last week, I met with Marc Canter, and we found that our notions for how the open social web should come about were very much aligned. Over the course of several hours, we developed a lengthy, bulleted list of thoughts, philosophies, and pragmatic approaches. As we reviewed that outline, a set of core ideas stood out to us, which we could succinctly frame as a “Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web.” In the following days, we circulated a draft with a number of thought leaders in the community, and were pleased to have Robert Scoble and Michael Arrington offer their support and sign-on as co-authors of the document.
That Bill of Rights has now just been published at The document lays out the basic rights that users should demand from any social site they use, with respect to ownership, control, and freedom of movement of their personal information. It also describes four things that sites need to do if they want to be truly supportive of those fundamental rights.
I realize that not every company that operates a socially-enabled web app will readily agree with the ideas put forth in this Bill of Rights. Handing over ownership and control to the users might even seem crazy to some. But from our own experience at Plaxo, as the custodian of millions of our users’s personal address books, such user-centric policies are good for business as well as good for users. For years, Plaxo’s privacy policy has included these core principles:

  • Your Information is your own and you decide who will have access to it.
  • You maintain ownership rights to Your Information, even if there is a business transition or policy change.
  • You may add, delete, or modify Your Information at any time.

And to be clear, “open” doesn’t necessarily mean “public”. Plaxo users generally consider their address book data to be extremely private, but they still want the ability to get it in and out of the trusted tools and sites they use (such as Outlook, Mac address book, Yahoo!, etc.). And “open” also doesn’t mean “less control over who can see what”–each site will decide what user experience works best for their users. What matters is that whatever data your users can see, they should also be able to syndicate and use with other services they trust.
We think it’s time for socially-enabled web sites to stop competing over who can build a higher wall to trap their users’ data. Instead, we are actively working to make sure that the “social web” is as open and vibrant as the Internet itself. We also firmly believe that the space of social apps is not a zero-sum game–as it becomes easier to find out what other sites your friends are using and to consume that content in novel ways, everyone will end up with more traffic and more satisfied users. We’ve already seen a bit of this with Plaxo Pulse users discovering and using new social sites by seeing what else the people they know are creating online, but the impact will be far larger when it’s distributed across the entire web.
Lastly, this Bill of Rights is part of a larger conversation that has been going on for some time and with many important voices. It echoes earlier work like’s Bill of Rights, follows earlier work in open data portability within the FOAF and microformats communities, and more recently, builds upon the conversations I’ve had with people like Brad Fitzpatrick, Tantek Çelik, Chris Messina, Dick Hardt, and others about practical ways to bootstrap the solution we all want. I hope the conversation continues to grow, and I hope this helps both sites and their users clarify how they want the social web to work, so that they can collectively make it so.

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Redgee Capili

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  • Ralf

    “You may add, delete, or modify Your Information at any time.” Google Docs today does not support true deletion:
    This “Bill of Rights” could start something to improve from the current status, the question is: What is the next step? Conversation has to lead to action.

  • Bernard Moon

    Very cool. Definitely in support of this.

  • Rikk Carey

    Very impressive and nicely done!

  • Mapics

    Simple request: Let me delete my mails and documents! I detected some weeks ago that on Google Docs, even when I delete documents from the trash, they are only hidden from the UI. Deleted documents continue to exist.