Facebook Change in Terms Causes Online Uproar

I’ve had a presence on Facebook for a while, with a large group of both personal and professional friends. I update my status with regularity (with the help of Twitter), manage several fan pages, and spend entirely too much time on the site. I was one of the first people in my group of friends to ask if anybody had actually read the new terms of service (TOS) that popped up. The changes sparked an online uproar after popular blog Consumerist.com posted a blog on the changes called “Facebook’s New Terms Of Service: ‘We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.'”

“Now, anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later,” The Consumerist wrote. “Want to close your account? Good for you, but Facebook still has the right to do whatever it wants with your own content.”

The blogosphere was soon ablaze with postings on the controversial changes to TOS. In short, the new terms say all of the content you’ve ever uploaded on Facebook can be used, modified or even sublicensed by Facebook in every possible way – even if you quit the service.

The TOS said the following:
You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.

It also used to contain another bit that is now missing:
You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

This is also reiterated in the “Termination” section:
The following sections will survive any termination of your use of the Facebook Service: Prohibited Conduct, User Content, Your Privacy Practices, Gift Credits, Ownership; Proprietary Rights, Licenses, Submissions, User Disputes; Complaints, Indemnity, General Disclaimers, Limitation on Liability, Termination and Changes to the Facebook Service, Arbitration, Governing Law; Venue and Jurisdiction and Other.

Sure, most users don’t really care (or think they don’t care) about all this, but the idea that users could not stop Facebook from using personal content was disturbing, to say the least. Who even pays attention to the fine print, anyway? Most of my Facebook friends wouldn’t have noticed if the social media backlash hadn’t happened. So asks Rob Pegoraro in his Washington Post tech column…

“why would anybody pay more attention to Facebook’s terms of service than to the other contracts we casually accept? Who reads the roughly 17,500-word “terms and conditions” contract governing Apple’s iTunes Store before buying a song? Who digests Microsoft’s nearly 5,500-word license for Windows Vista before booting up a new PC?”

Who? A TON of Facebookers it would seem, based on the volume of conversations trashing Facebook that have been posted all over the web. The major difference here is that unlike iTunes or your bank website, Facebook is a social space in the spirit of Web 2.0. We don’t understand (or don’t even bother reading in most cases) the terms of use on things we buy like electronics or services, but if someone changes the way we can use a social space, or the consequences of it, well that’s a different story- we seemingly have the right to control the rules by which the space is run as participants (at least that’s the tone from most intelligent posts on the subject).

The online uproar prompted a rare blog post directly from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In the post, Zuckerberg doesn’t actually apologize, but he tries to explain why Facebook essentially keeps your content forever. He writes, “When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn’t help people share that information.”

This is true – without making this part of the Terms of Service, someone could technically claim they didn’t know anyone would see their updates or photos (as dumb as that sounds).

Continuing, Zuckerberg explains why the site keeps content indefinitely. “When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work.”

That makes sense, but falls short of addressing the issues that has a flurry of bloggers so concerned about Facebook’s terms of service; he does not address the question of why this piece of the TOS was removed: “You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.”

Facebook is saying “trust us, we won’t do anything bad.” Zuckerberg writes, “In reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work.”

In the end, all this is not going to change the way I use Facebook or force me back to Myspace or Friendster. Nor do I think it will send legions of loyal Facebookers packing their digital bags either- but how many potential users has this whole thing scared away? Their terms of service, like those of any other online organization, are designed to put corporate interests first and minimize risks- you can thank corporate attorneys for that. This is a good example of not incorporating PR and a communication strategy with major operational decisions; Facebook failed at clearly communicating the reasons behind the changes, leaving Zuckerberg on the defense instead of proactively keeping users informed on significant changes in TOS.

So what now? Facebook rolled back its “new” terms and is promising to include users in the process of developing future changes through its “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” group. A decent PR move, but the damage has still been done. And let’s be honest- are corporate attorneys really going to let a 14-year-old Brittney fanatic help them develop policies? Probably not.

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