Friday, February 20, 2009

Facebook Retreats from Digital Rights Grab

The New York Times reported on Feb. 18 that Facebook is backing off an apparent revision of their terms of service. Click on the title of this post to read the full article. Spokesmen for Facebook, claimed that their revised terms of service, which appeared to claim rights forever in any material posted on the site, even after a user removed it, were merely clumsily drafted efforts to simplify the terms to make them easier for customers to understand. But these comments came on the heels of massive complaints from Facebook users who were outraged at the apparent shift; Facebook had repeatedly promised that users retained ownership in all posted materials.

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) had planned to file a consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on February 25. They have an announcement on their home page today, stating that more than a dozen consumer activist groups were prepared to join their complaint, but that Facebook has agreed to rollback their terms of service to the pre-February 4 version. According to the Times article, Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerman, is inviting users to participate in drafting a new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, to serve as a governing document for Facebook. This is an interesting development, reminiscent of drafting constitutions in Second Life. But the Times article concludes with some cautionary comments:

“I believe Facebook on this matter, but my issue is that Facebook is not just one person,” Mr. Harper {a Facebook user} said. “They could get bought out by anybody, and those people may not share the good intentions that Mark {Zuckerman} and his team claim to have.”

Analysts say that much of the confusion and rancor this week stemmed from the fact that sites like Facebook have created a new sphere of shared information for which there are no established privacy rules.

E-mail between two people is private, for example, and a post on a message board is clearly public. But much communication among Facebook members, which is exposed only to their friends, sometimes on a so-called wall, lies in a middle ground one might call “semipublic.”

“If I post something on your wall, and then I decide to close my account, what happens to that wall post?” said Marcia Hofmann, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties group. “Is that my data or your data? That’s a very tricky issue, and it’s one that hasn’t come up a whole lot in the past.”
Tip of the OOTJ hat to Fred Dingledy on Twitter for alerting me to the NYT article!

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