Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Panic! at the Facebook Terms of Service


Another item for the "your media isn't yours" file, but probably this belongs more in the "needless histrionics" file.

Some background: when you use most interactive internet services, you have to agree to a set of license terms and general terms of service before you are granted access to the site. These terms define what rights you have in using the service, but also what rights the service has in dealing with you.

Now the story: Facebook changed it's terms of service a little while back. The new terms included an item that said something along the lines of "anything you post is our property / licensed to us in perpetuity, even if you delete your account," which sounds reasonably alarming at first blush. This tiny little term seems to imply that if you post a poem or photo on Facebook, you give up your rights to it forever.

So naturally, people were very concerned when this change first took effect. Or, I guess, saying "very concerned" sort of undersells it: people went insane, started myriad protest groups (example), and flooded the blogosphere with alarmist, high-strung panicked missives. The internet collectively flared up in anger over Facebook's new policy.

But this policy, on reflection, seems to be pretty right minded. Facebook says that this term only aimed to more accurately reflect how their system actually works: when you delete your account, you can't delete the things you put on other people's wall or in their inbox. Those things remain the property of Facebook, but not for dark, illicit reasons; this is merely to keep the site operating the way its users, like your friends, expect it to, even if you delete your account.

And of course a situation like this isn't simple. Facebook probably was overstepping their traditional proprietary content boundaries with the term, but they probably only meant it for the best. It's a murky gray area that is different in every case. The Trademark Blog points out, though, that there is one constant in "terms of service" change cases: overreaction. Like the 5 stages of grieving, the blog outlines the common pattern of public outcry in cases like this.

The blog's "theory" is astonishingly dead-on in this situation, and I think it might be generalizable to nearly any situation related to intellectual property and cyberlaw. People have pretty concrete expectations for how their cyber-life should work, and they pretty much uniformly panic when they find out that these assumptions have no basis. And, for better or for worse, any change in how people interact with each other over the internet will always include this panic stage.

Facebook has apparently reverted their terms since the outcry, so this panic certainly serves a normative function, at the very least; if people are going to go nuts over any change, companies will be more likely to explain changes and less likely to make unfair ones. At the worst, though, and possibly more likely, this demonstrates just how little people understand their rights (and the rights of other entities) on the internet.

(I've got a post brewing about how little people understand their rights under a Creative Commons license, too. Stay tuned! Image cred: TylerIngram)

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