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Facebook's terms-of-service change has users abuzz

Wailin Wong
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Facebook knows your age, alma mater and favorite band. It's seen your spring break photos and read the messages you sent to your friend. So, can it do anything it wants with that content?

Legally, almost. But in practice, the rules that govern Facebook's relationship with its users are abstract and subject to constant negotiation.

The blogosphere was abuzz Monday after a popular consumer affairs blog pointed out changes to Facebook's terms of use that the social networking Web site quietly made earlier this month. The issue of who controls the data posted to the site is a massive gray area that continues to evolve as Internet companies and consumers shape social norms of how to define trust in the digital age and share their lives through new technology.

Under both the old and new rules, members grant Facebook a license to use content "on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof." But the revised agreement eliminates language saying this license would "automatically expire" if content were removed from the site.

"They're saying, 'Once data gets in our database, we can do whatever we want with it,'" said Eric Goldman, associate professor and director of the High Tech Law Institute at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

Suzie White, Facebook's corporate counsel for commercial transactions, announced on the company's official blog on Feb. 4 that the site was updating its terms of use. But Facebook didn't send out a mass notification asking users to sign off on the changes. And White's brief post, which didn't call attention to the content license, went unnoticed.

Then, on Sunday, the Consumerist blog, which is owned by the publisher of Consumer Reports, warned readers of the changes by describing the revised policy as, "We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever."

Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg responded to the controversy Monday, posting a note that explained the rationale for the content license.

"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," Zuckerberg wrote. "Without this license, we couldn't help people share that information."

In a statement, Facebook said its policy of maintaining a license over old content is consistent with general use of its site and other Web services such as e-mail. For example, if a Facebook member sends a message to a friend, that message remains in the friend's inbox even if the member quits the site. The company said this is similar to Web-based e-mail, where sent messages remain archived in recipients' inboxes even if the sender's account is deleted.

The controversy over the revised terms highlights a crucial question of user responsibility in the social networking age: Do consumers understand what can happen to their data? Privacy experts often warn that the notion that consumers can control the content they post online is illusory. Yet, most users don't bother reading terms of service or question a company's intentions when they sign up for a new site.

"Typically, terms of service approximate the length of a contract you would sign to buy a house," said Nathan Gilliatt, principal at social media consulting firm Social Target. "Half of it is in uppercase text that's almost unreadable. It's non-negotiable, and people want to use the service. So what are you going to do?"

One reason Facebook has become so popular is "it's convinced users that they have control over what takes place on the site," Goldman said. This level of trust is built into the culture of Facebook, not enshrined in any legal document.

Goldman said the language in Facebook's terms of use "runs directly contrary" to the tacit agreement the site has struck with its members. Users generally trust that their profile photos won't turn up on a roadside billboard without their permission, or that their blog posts won't be published in a bound volume and sold for profit.

Zuckerberg's Monday post sought to downplay fears that Facebook has dark motivations for amassing user data.

"We wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want," Zuckerberg said. "The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work."

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