Facebook Does About Face on Troublesome TOS

Facing an outcry from its subscribers, Facebook has backtracked and replaced its new terms of service (TOS) agreement instituted Feb. 4 with the previous version. Mark Zuckerberg, the social network’s chief executive officer, announced the change in a blog post on the company’s site Tuesday night.

“A couple of weeks ago, we revised our terms of use hoping to clarify some parts for our users. Over the past couple of days, we received a lot of questions and comments about the changes and what they mean for people and their information. Based on this feedback, we have decided to return to our previous terms of use while we resolve the issues that people have raised,” Zuckerberg wrote.

“Going forward, we’ve decided to take a new approach towards developing our terms. We concluded that returning to our previous terms was the right thing for now,” he continued.

The move comes in the wake of criticism from users who have formed several Facebook Groups protesting the new ToS and an announcement from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a consumer electronic rights and privacy group, stating it planned to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

This is not an inconsequential matter, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, told TechNewsWorld. “We’ve filed similar complaints in similar matters in the past like this. And Facebook was concerned, I think. They are also concerned because a lot of their users were opposing what they were planning to do. So it was a good result.

“I don’t think the privacy issues have gone away, but Facebook did the right thing, and we’re happy about that,” he added.

Facing the Music

Facebook users formed several groups in an effort to organize against the new TOS following a post published on the blog The Consumerist. The revamped TOS, which no longer included language promising that content from deleted profiles would be removed, appeared to grant the social networking site rights to user-posted content forever, whether an account was deleted or not. Before reverting to the previous TOS, Facebook denied claiming ownership of material that users upload

Nevertheless, more than 90,000 Facebook users joined forces to speak out against the changes. While that is a relatively small percentage of the site’s estimated 175 million global users, the incident illustrates once again the power of social networks — that Facebook users could actually use the Facebook platform to organize and protest against Facebook, said Caroline Dangson, an IDC analyst.

“Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed he was no match to the more than 85,000 Facebook users who organized the global Facebook group ‘People Against the New Terms of Service.’ This was just one of several global Facebook groups formed. Consumers are becoming more educated about online privacy issues and will demand more control over their personal information,” she told TechNewsWorld.

A recent IDC survey found that just 17 percent of online Americans said a TOS document was adequate notification from a Web site about how it uses personal information, according to Dangson.

“The majority of online Americans said they do not want Web sites collecting personal information about them. How companies handle user data — what they collect about users and how long they keep and can use this information — is going to be a hot topic in 2009,” she stated.

Third Strike

Facebook’s decision to pull its new TOS while it works with outside organizations and users to create new terms marks at least the third time the company has reversed itself in the wake of high-profile controversy. In September 2006, the social networking site unveiled its new “News Feed” feature that alerts a user’s friends to changes in that user’s profile, only to find itself the subject of protests and potential boycotts. Subscribers felt the new function needed greater privacy controls. Within days of the launch, Facebook had corrected course, bumped up the privacy controls and tamped down the outcry.

In November 2007, controversy was kicked up following the launch of Facebook’s Beacon advertisement system, which transmits data from Web sites outside of Facebook to users in order to enable targeted advertisements and allow users to share all their online activities with friends. In that instance, the charge against Facebook’s action was led by MoveOn.org, a citizen activist group. The organization created a Facebook group and online petition protesting Beacon. Although Zuckerberg announced that the program would be an opt-out feature for Facebook users, a class action lawsuit was filed in last August against Facebook as well as Blockbuster, Overstock.com, Fandango, Hotwire.com, GameFly, Zappos.com and others.

It calls the release of information upon which Beacon is based a violation of the Video Privacy Protection Act, Electronic Communication Privacy Act, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, California Consumer Legal Remedies Act and the California Computer Crime Law.

The company has hopefully learned from these earlier incidents as well as its latest controversy, EPIC’s Rotenberg said.

“This is getting to be like deja vu all over again. Every time they push the envelope, and I think sometimes they go to far. They’ve had that experience with Beacon and social ads, news feeds and a few others. But I think to their credit, this time they admitted they’d made a mistake and corrected it,” he noted.

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