Facebook's Privacy Muddle

Two weeks ago, Facebook quietly revised its terms of service to provide that users granted the company a perpetual license to use the material they uploaded. The blog Consumerist noted the change over the weekend, spurring users to complain that Facebook was attempting to violate their privacy.


This week, the site was forced to revert to its previous terms of service and is now creating a "bill of rights and responsibilities" for users.

"You own your information. Facebook does not. This includes your photos and all other content," states the working draft.

Unfortunately, statements like this one, however well-meaning, just add to the confusion. How does anyone "own" information? Facebook users might own the copyright to photos they took, or to wall posts they wrote, but that's not the same as owning the information itself. Once users publish something on a publicly accessible Web site, it's simply not private any more.

On the other hand, people have every reason to expect that online activities that they don't voluntarily publicize -- such as their searches, emails, Web browsing histories, e-commerce activity -- will be kept confidential. That's why behavioral targeting, or serving ads to people based on Web activity, is so controversial. That's also why Facebook's Beacon program, which shared information about members' purchases with their friends, was such a debacle.

Facebook still has to address legitimate privacy questions, including the circumstances under which marketers should serve ads to people based on data the site has collected. But this week's discussion about "ownership" of information that users have voluntarily publicized only serves as a distraction from the much harder privacy questions.

2 comments about "Facebook's Privacy Muddle".
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  1. Kelly Samardak from Shortstack Photography, February 19, 2009 at 4:41 p.m.

    the funniest part is, well.. not funny, is the CTO was on some news station saying that when you delete your profile, it's gone forever including the content - "unless it's content you've already shared with your friends."

    Call me crazy, but once you upload a photo, post a note, comment on a wall, or throw a sheep, aren't you "sharing" that content?

  2. Mark Sigal from The Middleband Group, February 19, 2009 at 4:58 p.m.

    While perception is reality, and the emotional response suggests that Facebook needs to do a better job of being consultative with its community versus delivering material edicts from on high, the truth is that the hullabaloo about Facebook’s change in Terms of Service is much ado about nothing.

    We create a "snail trail" when we plug into communities online, that snail trail becomes substrate that interconnects with other users and discussion threads.

    It's just not reasonable to expect that you can rip that out, creating virtual potholes in the communal space.

    Also, why do we begrudge Facebook as nefarious for wanting to monetize these snail trails when we happily accept Google monetizing our traversals, web pages, images and the like? It’s just silly, in my opinion.

    Check out:

    Why Facebook’s Terms of Service Change is Much Ado About Nothing

    For more fodder on this one.


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