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Facebook's Latest About-Face

Chris Conley,
Policy Attorney,
ACLU of Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Project
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February 26, 2009

(Originally posted on the ACLU of Northern California’s technology blog, Bytes and Pieces.)

Facebook, hardly a stranger to controversy, set off yet another firestorm recently when it changed its Terms of Use. The previous terms of service explicitly stated that Facebook’s license to use user-created content expired as soon as the user deleted the content or cancelled her account:

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.

The new terms, however, removed this sentence, suggesting that Facebook retained a license to user-created or uploaded content forever, whatever the user might do. This small change triggered a storm of outrage, eventually leading Facebook to reverse course and withdraw the new Terms of Use.

Permanent License?

Facebook presented the change as a simple attempt to clarify the previous terms with no practical implications on its treatment of data. Moreover, privacy settings would still “trump” anything else even according to the new Terms of Use.

Still, these changes could have had long-term implications, granting Facebook a permanent license to share your content with anyone who could see it when it was last visible, even if you later decided to delete it or cancelled your Facebook account entirely. Even if Facebook didn’t actually abuse that potential, the possibility of future abuse would still exist. And while, as Facebook said, you would still “own” the content, at some point the difference between ownership and eternal irrevocable rights become rather blurry.

Ultimately, the issue with Facebook’s new terms was one of control. The old terms made it clear that, as between Facebook and a user, the user was the one who retained official control over her own content, and could delete it any time she chose. The new terms turned that understanding on its head: Facebook, not the user, was asserting the right to keep information even after the user “deleted” it.

Users Speak, Facebook Listens

But this story has a happy ending: in response to complaints by Facebook users, Facebook has withdrawn its new Terms of Use and reinstated the old version. The reinstated Terms aren’t just a victory for Facebook users; they are a victory by Facebook users. If users work together, voices will be heard, and companies and lawmakers will respond.

So keep working. If you are a Facebook user, join the “Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” Group and tell Facebook that you want control over your information. Push other companies to give you the same rights. Tell lawmakers that online privacy is important to you. And keep working with us to update privacy law and practices so that they aren’t left behind as technology evolves.

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