Facebook's TOS debacle: Be upset for a better reason

There was some Facebook backlash over the long U.S.

There was some Facebook backlash over the long U.S. weekend that has prompted some calls for boycotts over two sentences that were taken out of the company's Terms of Services agreement earlier this month. Those sentences once allowed users to delete all of their uploaded content - pics, videos, notes and so on - and walk away from the service with only "archived copies" left behind for Facebook. And one day, that legal language disappeared from the TOS.

That means Facebook can continue to do all the things you allow it to do with your content as a user - stream, publish, copy, store, distribute and, yeah, even sublicense it for promotional purposes - even after you quit. And when the consumer watchdog site, The Consumerist, highlighted the missing language on its blog Sunday evening, the news started to spread.

Users are outraged, so much so that they have started to - yup, you guessed it - form protest groups on Facebook, including one called People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS), which was pushing 16,000 members early Tuesday. But they're actually getting mad for the wrong reason.

Sure, get upset about how they can use your content if you'd like but that's not new. We're just finding out about it - and that's what's even more disturbing. But more on that in a minute.

Facebook rightly disrupted the long U.S. holiday weekend and jumped into action to launch some damage control, posting a Monday afternoon blog post from CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

Our philosophy is that people own their information and control who they share it with. When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they've asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn't help people share that information. One of the questions about our new terms of use is whether Facebook can use this information forever. When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person's sent messages box and the other in their friend's inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this more clear.

If I'm understanding what Mark is saying, just because one of my friends decides to delete his account doesn't mean that I suddenly can no longer see the picture that he uploaded and tagged of me and him. So, in that sense, if the user who uploaded it goes away, the picture stays - and my friends are still free to see it.

Of course that makes sense - just like the analogy of sent and received e-mail makes sense. And, sure, it's probably reasonable for Facebook to clarify this language in an updated TOS. Really, I don't know that this is worth some sort of widespread boycott effort. But, with that said, let's jump back to that better reason to be upset and look at two other sentences in the TOS:

We reserve the right, at our sole discretion, to change or delete portions of these Terms at any time without further notice. Your continued use of the Facebook Service after any such changes constitutes your acceptance of the new Terms.

Whoa! You get to change the rules and you don't have to tell me about it? And just because I log-in again tomorrow - just like I do at some point pretty much every day - means that i agree to the new rules you've put in place? How is that fair? After all, this is a social networking site that has built a huge following based on tools for communicating with other people - and you can't "communicate" to me that you changed the rules? From Mark's blog post:

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...

Clearly.

In all fairness, the company posted an entry on its corporate blog about the new term when it made the changes, stating that it had "simplified and clarified a lot of information that applies to you, including some things you shouldn't do when using the site" and then went on to talk about protecting you and your privacy.

Who knows if anyone at Facebook would have foreseen this type of backlash? Still, maybe that post needed some more meat to it - maybe bullet points of all the changes and what they really meant. After all, a link to the new TOS is useless without a copy of the old one for comparison and, absent of those, a line in a blog post that mentions changes to "a lot of information that applies to you" without any explanation does little good.

One last thing: couldn't the company have also covered its bases by blasting an e-mail to every user? After all, Facebook does have an address for each of its members. And it is the one single thread - the license - that keeps Facebook connected its users. So, in that sense, it's kind of important.

Whenever my bank makes any changes to a privacy policy or interest rate, they send a copy of the new agreement in the mail. Whether I read it or not is a different story - but at least they've reached out to me to notify me of the changes. In this case, from best I can tell, that's where Facebook dropped the ball.