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Facebook’s Devilish Contract

News of changes to Facebook’s Terms of Service hit FriendFeed yesterday and sparked several debates amongst the relatively small set of librarians I follow. Facebook has always claimed ownership of everything you post there, but now there are two new lines that have caused the buzz:

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

And:

The following sections will survive any termination of your use of the Facebook Service: Prohibited Conduct, User Content, Your Privacy Practices, Gift Credits, Ownership; Proprietary Rights, Licenses, Submissions, User Disputes; Complaints, Indemnity, General Disclaimers, Limitation on Liability, Termination and Changes to the Facebook Service, Arbitration, Governing Law; Venue and Jurisdiction and Other.

In other words, they own everything, forever, even if you delete your account.

The reactions to these changes tended to fall into one of four categories:

  • I’m deleting everything today!
  • It’s not so bad if you’re using Facebook in the way it intends you to use it.
  • Privacy is Dead, get over it.
  • If you don’t like it, don’t use Facebook.

I don’t know what reaction I was hoping for, but these weren’t it. Here’s why:

  • Deleting everything today won’t solve anything. They’re caching this stuff, remember, and they’ve already laid claim to the cache.
  • Telling me that some categories of content are wrong to post because I’m not using Facebook for the kinds of things it was made for also seems a little facile. Social networking sites really can’t dictate the sort of social networking that happens on them. That’s defined by each individual network. Part of what has always made Facebook complicated is that any individual person might be using their profiles for personal and professional purposes simultaneously. (They may not do this well, but there’s no good way to prohibit one or the other of these uses.)
  • And privacy may be dead, but that doesn’t mean that we should throw our content willy-nilly into the hands of people who want to use it for commercial purposes if we can help it. There should be an opt-out option.
  • And while it’s usually a perfectly fine response to say “if you don’t like the contract, don’t sign it,” this response isn’t actually very helpful in this case. First of all, it’s too big of a network right now, and is often the only way of staying in contact with whole groups of your acquaintances. Goodness knows I’ve tried to leave several times (it’s just too complicated, too big, and too much for me), but I then realized that this would be tantamount to putting myself into a social time out chair. Unfortunately, we’ve been put in a position where protest might hurt the individual more than the institution. Also, it’s too late to protest if you already have a profile. They already own your stuff.

So what would be a good response? Well, I’m not exactly sure (boy was I hoping somebody could have articulated it for me!). Living online is a constant process of figuring out which pieces of yourself you’re willing to leave for others to use, though, so we always have to be aware of what we’re giving up and then use that knowledge to help us decide what to share in any given space. So in the case of Facebook, I’m willing to give them my status updates, wall posts, profile pictures, and the contact info that is already findable elsewhere online. And that’s about it. I’ve stopped feeding this blog into my profile there because I’d prefer they don’t have this content from now on.

This rather pragmatic response doesn’t diminish my righteous indignation toward Facebook, though. I’d love it if they got their tyrannical Terms fed to them in a goopy mash by a horde of gleeful lawyers. And I’m unwilling to say we should just get over it and move on. I guess what I am saying is that this is a perfect reminder for me that I am always giving up pieces of myself to The Internet, and that I should step back and think for a minute about what I’m doing on Facebook, why I’m doing it, and how many pieces of myself I’m willing to pay for the privilege of staying out of the social time out chair.

[Update 2/18: Facebook has heard the hue and cry and has reverted to its old TOS. I wonder what the new version will look like once they’ve taken all the comments in. Also, I found this fascinating comparison between the draconian TOS and those of other social sites.]

3 thoughts on “Facebook’s Devilish Contract

  1. I’m glad this is getting a lot of discussion going, if only because it gets people thinking about what it might mean if facebook has a license to whatever you post. It did make me go and read the WordPress terms of service to see what those are, since I have a lot more on my blog (I grant them license to display my work, but they’ll make “reasonable” effort to remove it if I delete that content).

    My response is pretty similar to yours. I will definitely think twice before posting any notes or photos or videos, but I probably won’t make major changes. I already wasn’t uploading blog posts to fb, and I definitely won’t do that now.

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