Facebook TOS Content Use Verbiage Vexes Users

What may have seemed to Facebook execs like a run-of-the-mill revision to the company’s Terms of Service (TOS) agreement grew into controversy over the weekend, and on Monday CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to scramble to reassure users that the content that they post — photos, videos and text — belongs to and is controlled by them, not the social networking Web site.

The brouhaha in the blogosphere appears to have begun after a post on The Consumerist by Chris Walters, who excoriated the social networking site for changes it made to its TOS on Feb. 4.

The blog post asserts that the company’s new TOS claims the right to do whatever it wants with content posted on the site, even after a subscriber’s profile is deleted.

Later, Facebook denied claiming those rights. “We are not claiming and have never claimed ownership of material that users upload. The new Terms were clarified to be more consistent with the behavior of the site,” said Barry Schnitt, a Facebook spokesperson.

Lost in Translation

The former TOS stipulated that when a user uploaded content to the site, he or she therefore authorized and directed Facebook to make as many copies as the company “deem(s) necessary in order to facilitate the posting and storage of the User Content on the site.” In addition, by posting content to any part of Facebook, users automatically grant “an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.”

The user-posted content section of the TOS ended by assuring users that uploaded content could be removed at their discretion and any license would expire, save for the retention of archived copies.

However, the old TOS stipulated that once an account was closed, any rights Facebook could previously claim to original content uploaded by subscribers would expire. Now, that caveat has been removed.

Facebook said that the changes in its TOS have been misinterpreted.

“One of the most important goals of the new terms [of service] was to be more open to users by being more clear about how their data was handled. We certainly did not — and did not intend — to create any new right or interest for Facebook in users’ data by issuing the new terms. None of the news or blog reports at the time we announced them on Feb. 4 suggested any confusion or misunderstanding,” Schnitt told TechNewsWorld.

When Delete Does Not Mean Delete

When a Facebook subscriber sends a message to another subscriber — or posts to another user’s wall, etc. — the content might not be removed by Facebook if a subscriber opts to delete the account, according to Schnitt. It can be deleted by the recipient of the message.

“Furthermore, it is important to note that this license is made subject to the user’s privacy settings. So any limitations that a user puts on display of the relevant content (e.g. to specific friends) are respected by Facebook. Also, the license only allows us to use the information ‘in connection with the Facebook service or the promotion thereof,'” he pointed out.

Users, Schnitt said, generally expect and understand this behavior, as it has been a common practice for Web services since the advent of webmail.

“For example, if you send a message to a friend on a webmail service, that service will not delete that message from your friend’s inbox if you delete your account,” he noted.

Users, however, are not necessarily well-versed in a respective Web services TOS and need to be educated about them, said Caroline Dangson, an IDC analyst.

“Of the survey respondents who said they would consider allowing Web sites to collect information about them under certain circumstances, less than half said that a revised terms of service was enough notification. However, these practices are common today, and consumer education is needed,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“Facebook must tread carefully in its desire to monetize the incredible amount of user data on its service. Facebook needs to do a better job of notifying users about these important changes, not downplaying them on its blog as ‘obvious,'” Dangson explained.

“Otherwise, consumer advocates will create a stir as they did this past weekend. Consumers need and want more choices about their online personal information. At the same time, consumers need to really think about the information they are broadcasting on Facebook and set the appropriate privacy settings,” she continued.

Not many Facebook users will likely begin deleting their profiles en masse as a result of the new TOS.

“It didn’t happen with Beacon. Similar to the Beacon incident, users are creating groups on Facebook to speak out against the social networking site. Facebook revised its Beacon service as a result of the outcry and quite possibly angry users expect the site to respond similarly in this incidence,” she concluded.

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