Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Facebook Backtracks on Its TOS, Still Works the Same Way

Here's my understanding of the recent Facebook Terms of Service Crisis:

When you post something to your profile, reports of it may (but not necessarily do) appear on your friends' pages. And of course Facebook allows you to post content on your friends' pages, e.g., by writing on your friends' walls. If you decide (and I'm close) that you've had enough of Facebook, and you delete your profile, everything on your page evaporates, but traces of your Facebook activity will remain on your friends' profiles.
This isn't a matter of Facebook policy; it's a programming problem that they haven't yet figured out how to fix. (It's a content and context problem, too. If I comment on Friend A's status, and Friends A, B, and C respond to my comment, the whole stream becomes a bit of a non sequitur if I bug out of Facebook and withdraw my comment. But my understanding is that Facebook hasn't decided that my comment to Friend A should survive my profile's demise — because it's not in a position right now to follow through on that promise.)

Over the weekend Facebook amended its Terms of Service to inform its users that right now they can't completely delete their content from the site. Everybody flipped out, Facebook has now gone back and removed the offending language from the TOU, and the out-flippers, including People Against the New Terms of Service (oh, praise the Lord for Internet organizing! what's next on the agenda: Darfur or the iPhone's battery life?), are rejoicing over their hard-fought victory for user privacy. This even though nothing about how Facebook works has changed.

For clarity's sake, Brothers and Sisters, let's apply an offline analogy: imagine that I've been hitting you with a stick for a couple of days, and I suddenly decide that it would be fairer to you if, while I hit you with the stick, I said, "I'm hitting you with a stick. You agree to allow me to hit you with the stick." You become outraged, you insist that you never agreed to let me hit you with a stick, and you demand that I stop telling you that I'm hitting you. So I stop talking, and I continue hitting you with the stick. Hooray for you, B/S: you really stuck up for yourself.

To be fair, the language that Facebook introduced in its amended TOS was pretty broad, and it was helpful to have some clarification from Mark Zuckerberg on what the amendment meant. And of course TOS don't just inform users about how the service works; they mean to bind them contractually and limit the company's liability.

Still, though: if the ebb and flow of the Sturm und Drang here teaches anything, it's that you can do what you want with your customers' content, but for God's sake, don't tell them about it.

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