Facebook: The Empire Steps Back

At the beginning of February, community website Facebook took advantage of the ubiquitous ability to change, modify, add, or delete portions of […] Terms of Use at any time without further notice, to amend a clause relating to user content. The revision allowed Facebook to continue using user generated content – including photography, text and personal information – in perpetuity, even after a user account was deleted. The change in terms, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a later statement, was to cover Facebook in terms of liability, as much content shared through the community is on the same basis as email or forum participation: once sent or published, it remains on the site even if the user account is deleted.

This is normal practice for pretty much any website around which allows user-generated content, whether it’s related to photos on Facebook, messages on an help forum, or posting a comment to a blog. If you share a photo or leave a comment on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook, then delete your account, the photo or comment will remain on the site. Facebook’s reasoning for the change in their Terms of Service was to cover them in this eventuality: to make sure that their users accepted and agreed that Facebook still had the right to “use” such a photo or comment in perpetuity, whether the user account was still active or not. The furore caused recently – not for the first time in Facebook history – was caused by people noticing that the clause stated that users agree that Facebook were – and still are – allowed to use the content for commercial purposes. (See the “User Content Posted on the Site” section of the current Terms of Service.)

Facebook listens to popular opinion

One of the better features of Facebook is the ability for users to prominently gain support for a cause or idea. Groups such as People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS), Meine Daten gehören mir, Petition pour que Facebook protége nos données personelles have all gained masses of interest, not just because of the recent attention for the amended Terms of Service gained through press articles, but also because of the original Terms of Service which have allowed Facebook widespead use of user content for quite some time.

The groups I mentioned above (which are by no means comprehensive) have gained around 510,000 members to date, which shows the level of indignance and protest about the changes and content of the Terms of Service. Such a visible outcry from members – although still tiny in comparison to the estimated 175 million worldwide userbase – led to Facebook revising their position in the past few hours to “return to our previous terms of use while we resolve the issues that people have raised“. Many users logged in this morning to the following message:

This is a good sign for Facebook users; it’s a sign of a company which is willing and ready to listen to their users and one which admits that it is wrong. They’re even asking users to join in the discussion about the future of the Terms of Service. The issue around the revisions, which was brought to light by website Consumerist on Sunday, has been progressed quickly and handled well by Facebook management. By admitting that they may have made a bad decision, and by visibly compromising with their users, they have created a good impression out of a bad situation: one which is imperative for success in a highly competitive market.

Read the small print

It’s important to remember, when signing up for a service like Facebook, that you are agreeing to their terms. It’s always important that you find out what you’re agreeing to before you agree to it! Similar agreements for most communities – and indeed many competitions which ask for you to send in submissions – have similar terms: the owners of the system or organizers of the competition take over the right to do what they want with your content. Simply said: read the small print, if you’re concerned about how your data will be used.

Protect your data

Communities like Facebook cannot be archived by search engines like Google, due to the requirement for a visitor to be granted access to certain information. While content is “safer” in such a closed system, it’s important to remember that Facebook and their users share responsibility for data protection. An article by “Legal Andrew” nearly two years ago highlighted important points about Facebook usage and the points which he raised are still very relevant today. As an example, there are still many users on Facebook who do not protect their information as well as they can: a quick search on Google for the phrases “David Brown” “is on Facebook” returns 16,000 results, many of which allow me to see personal information. Does U.K. television personality Jeremy Clarkson really want the world to know that he lists “Lector Hannibal” as a friend and “Drop Dead Fred” as a favourite film? Does Swiss presenter Kurt Aeschbacher want you to know who his friends are? If you want to restrict access to your personal information, make sure you look into what privacy options are available. (The Facebook options are here, for users who are logged in.)

In closing, I would use the statement which Consumerist posted: “Make sure you never upload anything you don’t feel comfortable giving away forever, because it’s Facebook’s now.” I would actually go one step further and continue to follow a piece of advice I received many years ago, when first publishing to the internet in the 1990s: “once you’ve shared something with the internet, it’s shared forever“. If you start out on the road to sharing personal information online with this in mind, then you’ll be much more careful about what terms you agree to.