Why Facebook users must still be cautious

It all started with an article in The Consumerist, which noted that a change to Facebook's Terms of Service had been instituted, seemingly on the sly*, that extended the company's access to your content essentially forever.

Here at Neowin we made an effort to take apart the new Facebook TOS to see just how onerous they were.

Facebook bounced back, pumping out spin to media outlets big and small, about how they were retreating from the "forever" addition to their TOS. They retreated to their previous TOS which, following their spin campaign, was supposed to make everything in the world all right again. Clarifications about how you remain the owner of your content--clarifications that do not appear in older versions of the TOS archived online at web.archive.org--surfaced (re-surfaced?).

Fearing that masses of Facebook users would be jumping ship, as we reported here as well, they are now seeking to open the matter up to take in the views of their members.

On 21 February, Techcrunch passed on, without critical comment, the views of Chris Kelly, Facebook's Chief Privacy Officer. The gist of their uncritical account was that the whole thing was "a scandal that was essentially cooked up by Consumerist". Rightly enough, they received dozens of indignant responses from people who had chosen to take the word of Facebook's TOS over that of its privacy PR man. One response, typical of many, used the metaphor of a used-car salesman: whatever he may say, it is never a good idea to sign any contract until you have actually read it!

But this incident has drawn more attention to the supposedly unproblematic TOS Facebook had been using prior to this incident and has resorted to using now. Although it is unlikely the company could provide the service users expect without such terms, it is important for users to recognise that uploading content to Facebook can still have undesired consequences. If, for instance, you upload a novel you have written or a photo you have taken and grant others ("Friends") access to it, then you have used the Facebook service to disseminate your work in a way that ceases to be under your control. It is not as extreme as, for instance, making it into a freely available torrent, but you cannot control its distribution within (and beyond) the Facebook web space. In this sense, it is well to be cautious about using Facebook or any other similar web service to share your creative works.

*Technically, the change they made was not on the sly: part of their TOS states that it is effectively up to you to keep visiting their TOS webpage to find out if anything has changed--this is serious. How many people are going to do that? And how often should they do it? Whenever they add something to their Facebook account? Every day? Every ten minutes? Clearly this is an issue that, in the interest of transparency, should also be addressed. If, after all, it is easy enough for them to send out a mass message to Facebook users asking for their feedback on the current TOS problems, it should be equally easy for the company to notify account-holders of changes to the TOS. Further, users should ideally be allowed to indicate whether they wish to continue using Facebook under the new terms by being offered a chance to accept or reject them.

Edit: This article is not anti-Facebook. If this author has anything against anyone, it is against those who treat the contracts into which they enter without due vigilance--and this author readily admits to having too often in the past been guilty of this as well. We are all responsible for our actions. There are problems with Facebook's relations with its users, and these are problems Facebook has acknowledged time and again. Indeed, the company's move to call for comments from the public about their TOS is both responsible and commendable, in this author's view.

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