Terms of service, privacy policies, license agreements, and other legal documents are the governing instruments of digital life. They are its Magna Carta, its Constitution, and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Downs, 2009, p. 22).
This essay advances the thesis that the most influential and important political documents of the twenty-first century are not necessarily the constitutions and charters written for new or reconfigured nation states, but the often-overlooked terms of service agreements that users must sign (or, more precisely, click "agree") in order to participate in social networks like Facebook, Second Life, Google+, Bebo, etc. These agreements, which constitute the principle governing documents of online social worlds (Grimes et al., 2008), constitute a kind of postmodern, post-nation state social contract. As such, they articulate, structure, and regulate not only the kind of social interactions and political opportunities that are available within these global networks but determine what forms of social activity and affiliation are considered to be appropriate, acceptable, and even possible. The examination, which takes a critical approach to this subject, will be divided into three parts. The first situates these agreements within the history and lineage of modern political thought in general and social contract theory in particular. The second pursues a critical reading of the Terms governing Facebook, a social network with a population of active users that now exceeds Brazil making it the fifth most populous polity on the plant. The final section extrapolates the broader social and political consequences of these agreements, arguing that informed users not only need to read these documents carefully but also need to recognize the way these seemingly unimportant texts define and delimit the very conditions of (im)possibility for social involvement and interaction in the 21st century. Although the subject addressed by the essay is contemporary and a product of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the method of its presentation is rather anachronistic and deliberately dissimulates the rhetoric and tone of an 18th century treatise. And this has been done, I can tell you dear reader, not out of affectation, but because the subject matter will have required nothing less.Gunkel concludes
by noting three consequences of the foregoing, all of which can be expressed in the form of short-hand, algebraic equations.
2) T – U = I. The Terms of a social network without user Understanding results in Irresponsible behavior. Despite the fact that these governing documents prescribe and regulate the rights and responsibilities of users, dictating the terms and conditions of online social interaction and affiliation, many of us, even those who are politically active and attentive, either ignore these texts as unimportant or dismiss them as a kind of "legalese" necessary to obtain access but not very interesting in their own right or worth serious consideration. This negligence is irresponsible for two reasons. First, on the face of things, Facebook, for example, appears to be a rather well-designed technological convenience allowing users to connect with friends, to share photographs and news, and even to participate in important social and political actions. The contractual agreement Facebook has with its users, however, also grants the organization a world-wide, unrestricted license to use this information in whatever way they see fit and the right to pass this and other forms of personal data to law enforcement agencies both in the United States and elsewhere. Although Facebook explicitly promotes a utopian vision of "one world," where individuals communicate with each other beyond geographical and national boundaries, it also serves the interests of national governments and modern social institutions by enforcing their laws and facilitating the surveillance of citizens. Users of Facebook, therefore, need to know not only what opportunities can be gained by joining the network but also what is potentially traded away, compromised, or exposed in the process of agreeing to its terms. Second, what can now in retrospect be called "social contract 1.0," namely the agreements that had organized and structured modern political institutions, often have been negotiated, executed, and decided such that subsequent generations only have the opportunity to agree to the contract through what Locke called "tacit consent." Social contract 2.0, by contrast, not only affords but requires each and every member of these post-modern virtual communities to make a definitive decision concerning the exact terms of the social relationship. If the social compact of the modern nation state often remained what Hobbes called "implicit," social contract 2.0 is explicit—every participant has the opportunity and right to agree to the contract or not. In order to take advantage of this extraordinary situation, however, users not only need to make an informed decision but also need to know the exact terms and conditions of what is to be decided.