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Who Owns Your Social Identity? 190

wjousts writes "Who actually owns your username on a website? What rights do you have to use it? An IEEE Spectrum podcast reports: 'What happens if Facebook or Twitter or, say, your blog hosting service, makes you take a different user name? Sound impossible? It's happened. Last week, a software researcher named Danah Boyd woke up to find her entire blog had disappeared, and in fact, had been renamed, because her hosting service had given her blog's name to someone else.' And as important as they are, what protects our accounts are the terms of service agreements. If you read them — and who does? — you'd learn, probably to no surprise, that they protect the provider a lot more than they protect you."
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Who Owns Your Social Identity?

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  • by epyT-R ( 613989 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @10:20PM (#36078626)

    whoever has more money gets their way.. it really is that simple. in this case the host will give the name to the one who is most likely to sue and who has the financial backing to do so. I miss the days of first-come-first-serve on the internet.

    • Re:money (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 09, 2011 @10:28PM (#36078682)

      Or whoever has more clout: by the time this article showed up on Slashdot, Danah Boyd had already been on the phone with Tumblr's CEO, and the account had already been reinstated.

      • Ya reckon somebody read the part of her blog that sez she is a researcher for Microsoft and went "Oops..."? If I was a second-tier 'net company with visions of being bought someday that particular name might have given me pause...
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      If you're using a free service, you should expect that if someone comes along and offers to buy your username, they'll get it. I don't know why this would be surprising.
    • It's been like that for a really long time. That's why you get TM and copyright protection over your Imaginary Property, so other people can't claim they own it. It's a rat race, but either you comply or you're subject to potential great inconvenience with no notice, because you have no Imaginary Property rights.
    • Re:money (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mellon ( 7048 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @10:51PM (#36078816) Homepage

      Money is a social construct, which exists by consent. So it isn't accurate to say that money will buy anything. The correct statement is that we consent to allow anything to be bought with money. When the problem is restated this way, the logical consequence is inescapable: only as long as we stand by and allow money to buy anything can it in fact buy anything. If we are not happy with a world in which things work this way, all we need to is withdraw our consent in sufficient numbers to effect change. This is the basis for the rule of law.

      • Money is a social construct, which exists by consent.

        - money exists out of necessity, the consent is secondary (and often it is not even there to begin with, as it is the case with legal tender, which is fiat and is destroyed by government printing, who destroy it and still claim that it is illegal not to accept this fiat).

        Money is not just an abstract idea, people are not spirits, we are physical beings, and so we need things - food, clothing, shelter, energy, medical attention, sanitation, etc. That's comes first, then you need things like entertainment, p

        • by mellon ( 7048 )

          You've completely missed my point, and you're also wrong. Money _is_ an abstract idea, with a concrete implementation. There is no currency that has inherent value. The value of the currency comes from our agreement (typically without reflection) to treat it as having value. This is as true of gold as it is of paper money. But even that is not my point. My point is that the context in which these misdeeds occur is one in which we assent to their occurrence without protest. All that is required

    • Exactly. And here is the solution:

      Do not use social networks or any other free services on the Net for anything you consider essential. If it's important to you, run your own server or pay for a service with a contract that gives you some warranty and customer protection. Don't transfer any valuable data to servers not paid, owned or controlled by you or you'll regret it some day.

  • by ItsJustAPseudonym ( 1259172 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @10:23PM (#36078654) could lose a gem like this one [].
    • I still clearly remember watching that skit, it's still my favorite skit, and I still, on occasion, reference it inappropriately. I don't know that anyone's ever understood it, but the possibility that there's scores of people in this world who think I'm some sort of sexual deviant who goes for red noses and brown noises, well.. that, too, makes me laugh.

  • by Dr.Hair ( 6699 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @10:33PM (#36078720) Homepage

    Not just money to sue. But a service whose entire revenue model is dependent on customer generated content creating ad impressions is more likely to hand an identity from someone who produces little revenue to one they think will generate more ad impressions. (So you're safer if your social identity is a big traffic generator, say like a Scoble.)

  • by Lord_of_the_nerf ( 895604 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @10:41PM (#36078754)

    Why, the same thing that protects you if someone steals your identity in the real world.

    Unicorns, vigilante superheroes and the goodwill of corporations like Mastercard - all in equal measure.

    • Or, register your screen names as trademarks.
    • by Surt ( 22457 )

      Why, the same thing that protects you if someone steals your identity in the real world.

      Unicorns, vigilante superheroes and the goodwill of corporations like Mastercard - all in equal measure.

      That's ridiculous. Because every knows that even if the other two are imaginary, there are, in fact, a few vigilante superheroes.

      • That's ridiculous. Because every knows that even if the other two are imaginary, there are, in fact, a few vigilante superheroes.

        You find me one with 'super' powers that would defend Axman13 and I'll agree.

  • for a bulk transaction

  • by sqrt(2) ( 786011 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @10:51PM (#36078818) Journal

    I'm torn on this. As much as I would like the server operators to have control as to what they do with their machines and the data, there is a trust relationship between the users and the service provider, and some rights that users should have are being violated in the name of profits--which is a sign that the model is breaking down in the face of a changing reality and needs to be changed--whenever you see humanity acting as a tool to serve the economy and not the other way around you should reexamine you priorities and goals.

    I'd like some sort of first come first serve system, but then you get cyber-squatters who buy up domains with no intention of using them just to extort money from people who would like to put them to good use; the same could be possible with usernames on popular sites but I'm not sure if that's happened before. The question is, how do you stop the squatters while protecting the rights of the little guy who got their first and is legitimately using a username or domain that a big powerful corporation or well connected individual has their eye on?

    I was able to register the vanity URL for my real name on Facebook, but if some more famous or powerful person came around with my same name (possible, it's that uncommon of a name) and wanted to take that URL from me I'd want there to be some protection against that. I registered the name first, it's my name so my claim to it is just as valid, money or power shouldn't have a say in who gets it and that seems to be a gap where we need legislation to protect people from the service operators.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bmo ( 77928 )

      >I'm torn on this.

      I'm not. It's a dick move to take someone's content and steal it like this.

      And just because you click on an agreement doesn't mean that all parts of the agreement are valid. There are things called unconscionable terms, which are /never/ valid.

      I would also say that all bullshit clauses that say "this agreement can and will change at any time" are demonstrably unconscionable and any changes made without explicit agreement by both parties are contracts of adhesion, at best.


      • by sqrt(2) ( 786011 )

        I agree with that, but what if the service operator simply shuts down their business? What happens to your account and username? If tumblr just shuts down, what's stopping someone from making a site on blogger with your old username and stealing your traffic that way? How do you enforce ownership of an account across multiple businesses?

        • what if the service operator simply shuts down their business?

          Which, as it turns out, has happened numerous times so far. AOL home pages, Geocities, and countless smaller systems have just vanished.

          If having your online name be under your control is that important to you, then your online name needs to actually be under your control: buy your own domain, and manage your own services.

        • by bmo ( 77928 )

          Shutting down the business is not the same thing.

          A few weeks warning should be given so people can pull their content off like the shutdown of Geocities.

          There's a difference between stealing and going broke/shutting down.

          If you can't see it, then I don't know what to tell you.


  • by Fractal Dice ( 696349 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @10:58PM (#36078846) Journal
    On a similar topic, could Facebook create an account for you "on your behalf" using information acquired from other sources where the fine print said they were allowed to share it?
    • Sounds like identity theft to me...
      • But credit rating agencies do this all the time - there are likely several companies, political parties and other organizations out there who have databases about me despite my never having done any business directly with them. If they have any authority to create such entries, it's only because of some deeply buried clause in some bank agreement allowing sharing. Given that Facebook is alreayd providing login management services and wants to be a database of how everyone's connected to each other, the lo
    • Wasn't there an Australian dating site that did just this?

    • I think there was a dating site that did just that in the last few months.

  • by headkase ( 533448 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @11:01PM (#36078856) headkase. I've been using it since 2001. Around 2005 I learned there was an Australian band called: Headkase []. We have yet to cross paths and I doubt there is even interest, and besides: mine is a lower-case "h" and theirs is upper.. ;)
    • by sqrt(2) ( 786011 )

      I read it as "head cheese" because kase resembles the German word for cheese, Käse.

    • Oddly enough, we're in the same boat.

      I'm not the musician who goes by Kompressor, although I have listened to and been confused by his work.

      How many others on here have the same situation?

      • If you google my name, the first N pages of results are mostly about a jazz drummer named Bill Stewart. While I am an amateur musician, if you've heard me drum you'd know that I'm not the same Bill Stewart....

      • I sometimes get mistaken for a real doctor.

      • by jo_ham ( 604554 )

        Can you compress air in a German fashion too?

    • by sco08y ( 615665 )

      And to think, the case was this close, this close, to making it all the way to the SCOTUS.

      How much longer can society go on without knowing who owns our names on Facebook?

  • You own your domain (Score:5, Interesting)

    by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @11:11PM (#36078910)
    Uh, if keeping your online identity is that important to you, then why not just buy your own domain?

    What, did you think that Facebook or Twitter were obligated to keep your username intact? If you were on my system, would I be obligated to keep your username and account intact (politeness aside)?
    • by tepples ( 727027 )

      why not just buy your own domain?

      She did. Please see my other comment [].

      • Notice that nobody took her domain from her, and her complaint is about a system that she does not control and which is not obligated to maintain her username. Tumblr is not a utility or a vital service, and treating a Tumblr user name like it is your property is just silly.

        To put it another way: my username on my high school's servers was recently deactivated, probably since it has been several years since I was a student there. Would it be reasonable to complain about having lost that username?
        • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @03:52AM (#36080078) Homepage Journal

          To put it another way: my username on my high school's servers was recently deactivated, probably since it has been several years since I was a student there. Would it be reasonable to complain about having lost that username?

          Perhaps you should e-mail the Slashdot admins and see if they'd be willing to take away BadAnalogyGuy's username and give it to you, because you'd clearly do a great job with it.

  • by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Monday May 09, 2011 @11:54PM (#36079090)

    There should be a law against this. Something to enforce your right to control copies of your creative work, and maybe something to make sure nobody uses your unique names, logos, and marks to steal your business trade. We could call it a "copyright and trademark law".

    I realize that supporting copyright and trademark law is heresy on Slashdot, but this is *exactly* the sort of situation it was designed to help with. The service provider has the right to shut you down if they want, but if you have trademarked "zephoria" -- a unique identifying phrase which is eminently trademarkable -- they can't re-purpose it without your express permission.

    • IANAL, but AFAIK trademarks only apply to names being actively used in the market. By itself, you couldn't trademark "goodmanj," but if you provided products or services under the name "goodmanj," (and made it clear that it was your trademark), you could.

      Or at least that's how I understand it.
  • Ok so Blizzard stole my name, what recourse do I have? []

    I clearly have had the name since 1988, even have published short story about the character.

    Funny how they never returned my emails....

    Yo Grark

  • by 7-Vodka ( 195504 ) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @12:14AM (#36079180) Journal

    With all the shit talking people do here on RMS, he's right on a lot of fundamental things. This includes his campaign against cloud services.

    The only reason you would have your host rename your blog or account with no regard to you is because you are not your own host. People enter into these disgusting one sided contracts multiple times per day and then they're surprised when the party holding all the cards actually plays them. It's the definition of stupidity.

    Willingly signing your rights away and then run around crying when you get shafted. Then you run crying to the politicians because now you need them to fix it, you don't care what they do but something must be done about it. And of course they seize the moment to push through whatever power grabbing measures that only go one way, ratcheting away everyone else's freedoms too with all sorts of unintended consequences.

    Same reason I'll never get a damn kindle.

    • Yeah, but for most people there are pretty practical reasons why they don't host their own services, and that's why they go running off to the Government to try to get some redress for their grievances.

      You're not signing your rights away, you never had rights to begin with. You have no right to post on slashdot, you have no right to post on Gawker, tumblr, facebook, twitter, xanga, livejournal or You're allowed the use of those services, but right? No.

      I'm all for legislation stating that if EUL

    • by Rakishi ( 759894 )

      And when they run their own blog it will get hacked every few weeks, spammed to hell and generally be useless. If you think the average person won't have those problems you're downright delusional.

      So, between having nothing and having something with risk, guess which wins?

    • Depends on your legal juristiction. Here in the UK, one-sided contracts can actually be invalidated - even if you agreed, signed and got photographed holding the contract doing a thumbs up sign. It doesn't matter how much you consented, if it's a legally unenforceable contract, then it's unenforceable.

      That said, I doubt someone's going to the High Court because their username got changed. By the time you're motivated enough for that, you'll have got your own domain (although if the registrar takes it from y

    • I would vote you up if I had the points but you are +4 already so I must not be alone.

      The title of this article should really be "Who owns the website, the person that paid for it or the person using it as a free service?".
  • Don't trust anything online. Have we not learned this lesson many times now? Several people have mentioned that "he who has the most money wins." Yeppers. This story is absolute crap (as in the way the company trounced on this lady), but if you really want to be free you have to have to go really independent of anyone above you that can cut you off. Which, really, is nigh impossible unless your super rich so you can have your own ISP, servers, line, and a team of lawyers. No one will ever try to claim

  • I wrote about a similar problem a few days ago. Facebook and Twitter are the only contact I have with some people, yet they are private businesses with no obligation to provide a service, and they can and do close accounts on a whim.

    Here's my blog post about it. The fragility of social networks []

  • To 'trust' your information to someone else is simply foolishness.

    Sure, you might have legal recourse because, well, there's a lawyer under every rock and you can sue anyone for anything. Ultimately, trusting anyone without making your own arrangements/backup for data that's important to you is just silly.

  • I've run into an increasing amount of sites that won't let you "delete" or "turn off" your account. At best you can hide it. The worst I've come across is one where you have to pay them for deletion. But 10 years later, I really don't care to be associated with that car forum/demographic anymore.

    Of course, we all agree to this as it is buried in the "Terms Of Use"

  • Lumpy(tm) is a registered trademark of LumpyCo a subsidary of the Lumpy Foundation.

    Honestly, if you pull the same shenanigans that corporations do you can control them.

    Trademark your persona along with copyrighting it. then you have a legal standing to FORCE companies like facebook,, etc.. to do what you tell them to.

Bell Labs Unix -- Reach out and grep someone.