Who owns your Facebook data?

Here's a hint: It ain't you. But some day it might be, with the help of free tools like uProtect.It.

On the surface this seems like a silly question. Surely you own your Facebook photos, status updates, notes, links, or anything else you’ve shared. Because, after all, you put them there. Right?

Not necessarily. Facebook’s terms of service make it clear that, while you technically “own” your own stuff, you’re granting them “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post.” 

In other words, you own it, but they can do whatever they want with it. Hence the “sponsored stories” Facebook just announced: Ads that use your profile picture, based on your Likes and Facebook Places check-ins, without asking you. (See “Facebook ads use your face for free.”)

[ See also: What the frak is Quora? ]

Even if Facebook doesn’t do anything with your content, other people might. Depending on your privacy settings, your updates and comments could easily appear on another site (like Openbook) or be downloaded and shared by anyone who has access to your Facebook feed.

Shouldn’t you be the one making the decisions about who uses your stuff? That’s what the good folks at Reputation.com (formerly Reputation Defender) believe. So they introduced uProtect.It, a free Javascript-based browser plug in that provides another layer of privacy over what you post on Facebook.

Install the uProtect.It button in your browser toolbar. When you want to protect a status update, comment, or photo, click the button; your Facebook header will glow a John Boehner-like orange. Write your comment or upload your photo, and click the orange Encode button. Voila – all your friends will see is that you “made a protected post” and give them a URL where they can log in to decode it.

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You can set permissions as to which of your friends get to decode your post; those who aren’t on the list see a blank page when they click the link. Any comments appended to a protected post are also protected. And because the posts are actually stored on Reputation.com’s site, not Facebook’s, you have total control over them. You can delete them permanently, or set expiration dates for each thing so that after a few days it just goes “poof.”

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That’s the cool part. The not-so-cool part? uProtect.It is in public beta, and it shows. Features seem to change on an almost daily basis. It is crash prone, especially when trying to modify the list of friends who receive posts. And if your friends want to read anything you posted using uProtect.It, they have to install the uProtect.It Facebook app. Ironically, the app’s extensive permissions disclosure – it requires access to nearly all of your information – scared off some of my more privacy savvy friends.

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If all you want to do is limit who sees certain posts on Facebook, using Facebook’s lists feature is a much better way to do it. If you’re posting something ultra sensitive to one or two people that you don’t want Facebook to get its grubby mitts on, it’s a better call. Then again, at that point you might as well email the thing to them.

Still, you have to admire what Reputation.com is trying to achieve. I spoke with Reputation.com COO and co-founder Owen Tripp, who readily acknowledges that uProtect.It isn’t quite ready for prime time, yet.

"We wanted to put this product in as many hands as possible and listen to what they had to say so we could make it better,” he says. “We thought Facebook was the most urgent, so we started there. It's not just the visibility of the comments and photos you post, it's the fact that once they're out there, people who are not you can own them forever."

Reputation.com knows a thing or two about Internet privacy; for the last three years it has managed to create a profitable business out of removing harmful information from the Internet for its clients, and for letting people know exactly how much information is available about them online. A lot of companies have crashed and burned in the privacy biz, but Rep.com appears to be thriving.

Tripp says their ultimate goal is to provide a service that lets you store your posts, tweets, pictures, ad nauseam on a machine you control, whether in your home or in the cloud.

"Facebook is the center of the social media world, but we have the same ambitions for Twitter, Flickr, or any place where you're sharing personal details. We think people should have control over their own information. Period, end stop. No social platform will provide that on their own."

Amen, brother.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan is wondering how much nuclear radiation you have to endure before your face turns that orange. Experience his juvenile sense of humor at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech.

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