Get those ToS sorted

The spat between WidgetLaboratory and Ning highlights one of the running sores in the current rush to all things 2.0: no-one and I mean no-one has given enough thought to how Terms of Service (ToS) are going to operate in the real world once cloud based services start to scale and third parties tangle with each other.

The spat between WidgetLaboratory and Ning highlights one of the running sores in the current rush to all things 2.0: no-one and I mean no-one has given enough thought to how Terms of Service (ToS) are going to operate in the real world once cloud based services start to scale and third parties tangle with each other.

On this occasion, I agree with Mike Arrington that the WidgetLaboratory folk have behaved in an asinine manner. Regardless of the rights or wrongs, behaving like school children in email is guaranteed to get anyone's back up. But then in the testosterone driven world of Silicon Valley, one shouldn't be surprised when tempers flare. But I see a deeper malaise and it starts with Google.

I've written on a number of occasions that Google's inconsistent terms of service make it really difficult for end users to be 100% certain what their rights to data really are across all their services. In the WL-Ning  email trail, Ning invokes its blanket service kill clause. In email dated August 22nd, Ning's general counsel Bob Ghoorah says:

...our Terms of Service clearly state that “Ning has the right (at its sole discretion) to delete or deactivate your account, block your email or IP address, or otherwise terminate your access to or use of the Ning Platform or any Network, or remove and discard any Code or Content within any Network, without notice and for any reason.”

WL can kick and scream as much as it likes but that's about as plain English as it gets.

Whether Ning is 'right' or 'wrong' is irrelevant to the WL case but has implications for anyone using the platform and APIs to add in services. Dare Obasanjo offers a practical way to solve these types of problem but sadly, it doesn't address the ToS issues.  I can see why Ning needs to protect itself in the face of unknown pressures on its network. But in the Enterprise 2.0 world of tomorrow where code might be running here there and everywhere, developers of new servicves have got to think more clearly about what they're doing. Network owners also need do their due diligence. In this case, it seems Ning didn't know that WL was harvesting user information. Why not?

I am currently working on a Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 style project that involves all sorts of licensing implications and risks based on where code is run. We've been attempting to iron these out for nearly three months and every turn seems to involve either a tussle with legal (where the default position is almost certainly 'no') or a short term workaround. I understand the situation from all sides but finding a satisfactory answer is far from straightforward. The lesson?

Anyone engaged in the current wave of services 'running anywhere' needs to ensure that the ToS and other broad legal questions are understood, articulated and resolved as early as possible. That is particulary important in freemium models because whenever money gets involved, people can get very tetchy.

It may seem like an un-necessary waste of time and a thundering irritation when developers are mad keen to throw code over the wall or where takeup hockey sticks. But as the WL-Ning situation demonstrates, a failure to understand what's going on can have unwelcome consequences.

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