On an otherwise placid holiday weekend, one blog's commentary on a change to Facebook's terms of service created a firestorm of banter on the Web: does the social network claim ownership to any user content on the site, even if the user deletes it?
Facebook reorganized its terms of service last Wednesday. In a blog post, company legal representative Suzie White provided an explanation. "We used to have several different documents that outlined what people could and could not do on Facebook, but now we're consolidating all this information to one central place," White wrote. "We've also simplified and clarified a lot of information that applies to you, including some things you shouldn't do when using the site."
The blog post sounded benign. But the brouhaha arose on Sunday over a revision in the wording of Facebook's policy over what happens to profile content--shared items, blog post-like "notes," photos--when members delete their accounts.
Consumer advocacy blog The Consumerist phrased Facebook's fresh policy as "We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever," pointing out that Facebook's ToS spruce-up removed several sentences in which the company said its licenses on user content expired upon account deletion. And that's where the hysteria began.
"Facebook should now be called The Information Blackhole," one Consumerist commenter proclaimed. "What goes in never comes out. Be careful what you huck in there."
Truth be told, most Facebook users won't give a hoot, the same way that the flurry over the Beacon advertising program in late 2007 was fueled by a few vocal privacy advocates while the general population didn't seem to care about it one way or the other. But for advocates of copyright reform and privacy, not to mention photographers and writers who may want the photos they upload or "notes" they write on Facebook to eventually lead to some kind of profit, the news was alarming.
Some prominent Twitterers and bloggers, like New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, announced that they were deleting their Facebook accounts or pulling all uploaded content.
So Facebook issued somewhat of a clarification on Monday to explain what the change really meant.
"We are not claiming and have never claimed ownership of material that users upload," a statement from Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt read. And indeed, Facebook's terms of service do say that "User Content and Applications/Connect Sites" are exempt from its claims on content ownership.
"The new Terms were clarified to be more consistent with the behavior of the site," Schnitt's statement continued. "That is, if you send a message to another user (or post to their wall, etc...), that content might not be removed by Facebook if you delete your account (but can be deleted by your friend)."
The statement also noted a few fine points. First, Facebook's license only permits it to use user content "in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof," indicating that CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not plan to make the site profitable by selling scandalous user photos to the National Enquirer when those Facebook members run for elected office.
And second, if that Facebook content was not public, the site will respect the member's chosen privacy settings. In other words, if your profile and the photos you have uploaded to it are only accessible to people on your friends list, Facebook says it does not have the right to show those photos to anyone outside your friends list.
Facebook has expressed disapproval when photographs and profile screenshots normally protected by the site's login wall or privacy settings have been made public on the Web. The site reportedly threatened gossip blog mogul Nick Denton with an account deletion when one of his properties, Gawker, posted photographs found on a socialite's Facebook profile. Suffice it to say it would be hypocritical for Facebook to publicly distribute, let alone sell, the same content itself.
Things are a little bit murky for sure, though. Unlike the Yahoo-owned Flickr, Facebook does not have extensive copyright preferences, meaning that a professional photographer might want to choose a media-sharing site where there's less of a gray area as to what can actually happen down the road.
But as Facebook becomes more and more of a content-sharing hub, especially now that the Facebook Connect product expands its reach to third-party sites, it's likely there will be a louder cry among members--especially those involved in creative industries who use their Facebook profiles for professional promotion or publicity--for clearer terms.
The way they stand now, Facebook's terms of service claim that the company does not have ownership over content, yet that it does have "an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (to)...use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works, and distribute" material as long as it doesn't violate the privacy preferences set by the user.
Considering Facebook content is login-protected by default, the outcry should be quelled somewhat by that "subject only to your privacy settings" phrasing. Still, this is a debate that might not go away so quickly.
UPDATE at 2:38 p.m. PST: Zuckerberg wrote a post for the Facebook blog later on Monday about the issue: "We still have work to do to communicate more clearly about these issues, and our terms are one example of this," he wrote. "Our philosophy that people own their information and control who they share it with has remained constant. A lot of the language in our terms is overly formal and protective of the rights we need to provide this service to you. Over time we will continue to clarify our positions and make the terms simpler."
Zuckerberg continued: "We're at an interesting point in the development of the open online world where these issues are being worked out. It's difficult terrain to navigate and we're going to make some missteps, but as the leading service for sharing information we take these issues and our responsibility to help resolve them very seriously."