Conflicting Court Cases Regarding the Nature of Social Networks

I was catching up on news this morning and 2 unrelated stories jumped out at me, the first being a case brought by ad company Sanbreel against Facebook. The issue at hand was whether or not Facebook amounted to a public utility and as such an essential service, and the judge who reviewed the case disagreed:

There is no fundamental right to use Facebook; users may only obtain a Facebook account upon agreement that they will comply with Facebook’s terms, which is unquestionably permissible under the antitrust laws. It follows, therefore, that Facebook is within its rights to require that its users disable certain products before using its website.

Earlier this week I recalled reading about PeopleBrowser securing a temporary injunction against Twitter to ensure full and complete access to the Twitter firehose.

“We relied on Twitter’s promise of openness when we invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours of development time,” PeopleBrowsr CEO Jodee Rich said in a blog post. “Long term supply is essential as this industry matures. We made this application to ensure full unrestricted access to the Firehose for our Enterprise and Government clients.”

While each case is different in terms of substance, one involves a company’s terms of service while the other is predominantly focused on contract law, the underlying issue related to the whether or not social networks are public utilities is an interesting one to consider. Furthermore, compelling companies to provide access to data would not be unprecedented, cell phone companies are required by law to allow you to take your phone number with you and credit scoring agencies are required to provide limited access to their service at no charge to the consumer.

Existing copyright law provides provisions for copyright holders, whether individuals or businesses, to compel social network to remove work that may infringe on copyright, independent of judicial review. This may seem specific to copyright holders but when you consider that every image uploaded by a Facebook user is subject to copyright law the issue becomes interesting insofar as images which are reposted and shared.

The PeopleBrowser case is the more interesting one to watch, because the injunction will be reviewed in January as opposed to the Sanbreel case which was summarily dismissed. What PeopleBrowser is arguing is that companies have relied on Twitter’s implicit promise that a firehose would always be accessible in order to build their business, much like many other businesses have done and when Twitter changed course they did substantial harm to an ecosystem they actively fostered. We may be on the verge of a new chapter in contract law where services like Twitter are constrained in their ability to arbitrarily change developer terms of service, I doubt this will happen and would regret it if it were to pass.

iPads and Gasoline, What Line Are You Waiting In?

5 days after Hurricane Sandy New Yorkers have gone from waiting in line for the newest iPad to waiting in line for a few gallons of gasoline.

A few days ago I wrote about our societal reliance on technology and the risks it imposes in the event of incapacitation. Now I see this is even broader in impact, it is the proverbial weak link in the aftermath of a disaster.

At this moment over 3 million people in the northeast are without electricity and that includes almost 1m who get their service through Con Ed. Access to electricity affects everything… from how we charge our cell phone to our ability to purchase the essentials of life, like groceries. Supply chains grind to a halt without fuel, businesses cannot restart operations, and services are disrupted.

There is another dimension to this that cannot be ignored, which is the transition of information services that are essential in an emergency from traditional broadcast forms to the Web. FEMA has been directing those impacted by the storm to go to the website or call the 800 number for assistance.

If you live on Staten Island and have not had power in 5 days or have suffered significant property loss, how will a website or call center help you? For many of these people the only course of action is to physically present themselves for assistance.

We simply cannot allow ourselves to be deluded into the notion that communication is a zero sum game, where a website will supplant other forms of service. Our communication network is more dependent on power at the end points than at any other time in the history of telecommunications, if you can’t charge your cell phone or provide power to your cordless connected phone you are incapacitated.

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Disaster and Technology Seizure

In watching the coverage of hurricane Sandy’s aftermath on the east coast I am struck by something that is a consequence of our technology driven society… what happens when all that technology becomes disabled because of environmental conditions, otherwise known as water?

We depend on electronics in nearly every conceivable object we encounter on a daily basis and the fragility of electronics due to water and power surge is well known. This one image of a NYC subway station really drives home the point, even a simple turnstile is chocked full of electronics that count passengers, deduct credits from stored value cards, prevent against tampering, and probably a lot more than I can imagine.

In our increasingly complex society we have lost the simple elegance of mechanical things. For example, we no longer have telephones that can work when not plugged in to a power source, or worse when not able to transmit to a cell tower, and as a result our condition is that much more fragile as a result. How many people in NYC this week were left incapacitated because they were unable to get information from the internet and could not get a cell signal? Probably more than we would like to admit.

Now in all fairness, if a subway station is flooded the last thing you need to worry about is whether or not the turnstile works… you aren’t going anywhere, period. The problem arises when the water is pumped out and the trains can start running again, how long will it take to restore service in the station itself as a result of all the water damage?

The solution isn’t to go back to a bygone era and re-introduce mechanical machines, not by a long shot, but perhaps we need to consider the consequences of electronic mechanisms that can withstand environmental conditions and have the capacity to operate in a standalone mode in the event that a connectivity network is not available. Of course the first strategy every person should rely on is being prepared to rely upon yourself in the event of a disaster, have emergency supplies and a plan for what you will do and how you will do it.