[iDC] Terms of Agreement: The Internet as Playground and Factory

Cynthia Beth Rubin cbrubin at risd.edu
Wed Jun 17 00:49:14 UTC 2009

In my previous post I was not referring to Facebook or to reforming  
one specific piece of software.

The concept that I was putting forth was that there is a disconnect in  
the development of networking sites as software and the actual uses by  
the end-user.  One of the consequences of this is that it leads to  
unreasonable Terms of Agreement.  This is not the only problem, and of  
course we need to change society to be more open in other ways,  
including looking at how software development is financed and  
rewarded.  Thanks to David Berry for pointing out that someone  
somewhere takes the time to write software, and that our current  
system of "open source" is dependent on University paid time, the free  
time of the unemployed, or the free time of those who are otherwise so  
fully employed and well-paid that they can spend surplus time donating  
it to the community.  If you know any one working in a truly under- 
developed country developing software then you know that these  
individuals are totally cut out of the Open Source movement - which  
should present a dilema for true progressives.  Smart people living in  
impoverished countries cannot afford to give away anything, and their  
Universities (should they be fortunate enough to have a position)  
rarely value "Open Source" as a worthwhile use of their time.

The example I was using was of a networking site that has no interest  
in mining data, because what they were selling was for already defined  
communities.  Their goal is to provide a turn-key service that appeals  
to defined groups, and these groups generally want control over their  
own data.  Alumni groups are one example, teaching sites are another.   
Many of us have also used "google groups" and other closed groups.

In the example I mentioned, iModules markets networking sites to  
groups of Alumni from the same University.  The original user  
agreement was so absurdly one-sided that it was not even a questions  
of asking the company to cave.  They just said yes.  At the other end   
was a developer who was in total agreement that the Terms were  
unreasonable and too one-sided -- and probably was not too happy to  
see all of his hard work go up in smoke because of a poorly written  
agreement.  (I was not the one who made the contact but I was the one  
who read the Terms and refused to Agree, and brought in a community of  
like-minded people)

Power is certainly at the heart of some of this - but in the case that  
I was describing, the power was ours.  We only had to use it.  There  
was no resistance.  We were paying money, and they were not selling us  
the right product. The history of all software development is that the  
developers imagine what the user wants, and then the users push the  
software in new directions, and the companies respond. I am suggesting  
that sometimes the companies are just waiting for us to respond, but  
we have no way to do that.   I have seen software grow and change over  
the years in other areas as well - and the pattern in similar.

Would writing our own software be better?  Yes, but remember that the  
history of Facebook was a little app written without thinking about  
making money - that part came later.  So back to the Open Source  
problem. . . who exactly is in a position to do all fo this work for  

I think that what Christian is asking is: Why did I focus on a little  
question instead of the BIG question? Progressives can engage in  
discourse on more than one level; we can be aware of the larger  
imbalances of the system while working to make small changes. .  I am  
still buying some of my food to supplement what I can grow, even while  
I understand the drawbacks of Agri-business (and even while supporting  
local farmers... ). Right now I enjoy certain benefits from social  
networking software, which I will continue to use while trying to  
change it to fit my own needs.  And I will use different methods to  
help that change come about.

Cynthia Beth Rubin

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