You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Terms of Service: Facebook’s Switcharoo and the Importance of Knowing Your Rights

Over the past few days, my information sphere (comprising a haphazard cross-section of RSS feeds, Twitter, and Tumblr) has been dominated by one slightly alarming piece of news: Facebook has changed its Terms of Service. And now it has the rights to everything, ever.

“Everything, ever” might be an exaggeration, but it’s not much of one. In an important article by Amanda French comparing the Terms of Service for MySpace, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter with Facebook’s revised ToS, she concludes that Facebook’s terms are “extraordinarily grabby and arrogant,” consisting of the following gems (excerpted from Amanda’s article):

1. Facebook apparently wants to keep all its rights to your stuff after you remove it from Facebook, and even after you delete your Facebook account.
2. Facebook claims it can do whatever it wants with your content if you put a Share on Facebook link on your web page.
3. Other sites point out in their terms of service that you still own your content: Facebook doesn’t mention that little fact.

The technology professionals, college students, and academics I interact with online are outraged. Some are even considering abandoning Facebook altogether (even though doing so would only “protect” their future content, and under the new ToS would do nothing to salvage their rights to the content already posted.) The outrage will circulate, I’m sure, for the next few days. It may even make some major news outlets, if it hasn’t already.

But then what? With 175 million users already, and another 600,000 joining every day, Facebook can afford to lose a few naysayers. Of the people left behind, most will never even hear about the Terms of Service, let alone read them. They will continue to use the service, regardless of the terms, because the change was largely invisible. Facebook risked the ephemeral wrath of the techno-obsessed in order to implement a much more insidious and permanent shift. It is eroding the information rights of users who might not even know they have them. And as long as Facebook remains the place where the un-techno-obsessed congregate, even the naysayers will, for the most part, remain in the system. Losing the social graph that Facebook has aggregated—a social graph that, unlike most places on the Internet, actually has a shot at mirroring real-world interpersonal connections because so many are on it—will ultimately prove more frightening than the greedy implications of Facebook’s new Terms of Service.

These new terms, though grim, may indeed not be worth quitting Facebook over; that calculus is one that each user will have to make for himself. But it’s hard to make the right decision when you don’t know you’re making a decision at all; Facebook’s quiet ToS shift means that it will escape most everyone’s attention, and suddenly they’ve “agreed” to something they never really agreed to.

Education for a digital age requires not just knowing how to use the tools, but knowing how they’re using you. Facebook’s changed Terms of Service, and Amanda French’s article linked above, offer an ideal starting point for discussion.

Update 02/19: Facebook has reverted to their previous terms of service. That was a quick turnaround!