Face/Off: How a Little Change in Facebook's User Policy is Making People Rethink the Rights They Give Away Online

What's got billionare Mark Zuckerberg so blue? Just that his service is claiming perpetual rights to all its 175 million users' content, even if you kill your account.
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Facebook's getting really good at the non-apology apology. They practiced it in 2006 when they first launched the now-ubiquitous News Feed. They did it again in 2007 when they launched their short-lived Beacon ad service. In 2008 when the New York Times and others reported that it was almost impossible to truly leave the service, they came back not apologizing again.

And now, in 2009, they're at it once again, not-apologizing with the best of them:

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. This is a big focus for us this year, and I'll post some more thoughts on openness and these other issues soon.

Did you catch it? Pretty good, huh? Not once does Mark Zuckerberg say he's sorry--or that they're changing their policy--but, boy-howdy, he sure does sound gosh-darned sad about it, doesn't he? You almost want to give him a Palin wink and pull a "who's got your nose" on him just to cheer the little fella up again.

So what's got billionare Zuckerberg so blue? Just that his service is claiming perpetual rights to all its 175 million users' content, even if you kill your account. And, wouldn't you know it, that's rankled some feathers outside of Palo Alto. From gossipy websites to privacy advocates, voices from all over the web are crying foul on the new Facebook Terms of Service that state:

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.

Those pictures of you at that party one time? It's theirs to do with as they please. That story you posted? That too. Your short film? Can I get a "You Betcha"? It used to be that when you left the service, you revoked Facebook's license to the content you'd left behind. But, says Zuckerberg, that's actually a pretty complicated request on a network as tightly woven as Facebook's:

There is no system today that enables me to share my email address with you and then simultaneously lets me control who you share it with and also lets you control what services you share it with.

That's true, to the degree that his analogy holds up. The problem is that he's using an e-mail address as his example and, as every fake Nigerian prince knows, e-mail addresses aren't very private. People aren't pissed about sharing their e-mail addresses any more than they're pissed about not being able to take back a message they sent once. People aren't pissed about sharing their stuff with other people, they're pissed about handing it over whole hog to Facebook. And they're even more pissed with the ramifications that Facebook's claims has to content like photos, videos, music, stories and the like. That Zuckerberg never even acknowledges that this is the problem makes it very hard to swallow explanations like this one:

In reality, we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want.

Which is funny, because it wasn't very long ago that their Beacon ad service was doing EXACTLY that. So, Mark, you can forgive the rest of the internet when they say they might not totally extend you that trust. Bummer.

Of course, the rest of the internet has murky Terms of Service too. A TOS is something you agree to every time you sign up on a website (hell, you've even agreed to one if you post comments here). Many of them lay perpetual non-exclusive claim to things you've created on their site. And if the Facebook flap makes people double check the fine print that they often skip over, then perhaps we've learned something useful. Perhaps it's the kick in the pants that's needed to finally move a modern approach to copyright like Creative Commons forward. Another plus.

But few sites ask their users to lay out all of their personal information, share their most-loved photos, bring their whole selves into the digital realm as Facebook does. And so a non-apology apology isn't enough. A promise to "communicate more clearly about these issues" is not enough. It is, in fact, the barest of minimums of what's being asked. But that's textbook Facebook non-apologies: why apologize when it can always just be explained a little more clearly. It's not a question of doing something wrong and undoing it, it's simply a matter of spinning it until people move on.

And, really, they've got all your content already--where are you going to go?

Update 2/18/09: Well that didn't take long--this morning Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg announced that "we have decided to return to our previous terms of use while we resolve the issues that people have raised." He now promises to update the TOS with community input and has started a group to help with that. If this wasn't a pattern with Facebook--do the wrong thing, then make it right--I'd be more encouraged. Until we see the new TOS, paint me sceptical.

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