Facebook's about-face: Change we can believe in?

After a change to the social network's terms of service sparks outrage, company decides to switch language back and says more modifications are on the way.

Facebook has had another awkward coming-of-age moment.

Late on Tuesday night, the massive social network reversed a change to its terms of service (TOS) that had meant that its license on user content--a longstanding but little-publicized claim to an "irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license" for promotional efforts--would no longer expire if a member deleted his or her Facebook account.

Over the weekend a popular consumer advocacy blog, The Consumerist, declared the change a cause for alarm. Buzz started to spread: could Facebook make your personal photos public? Or could it hand over that drunken karaoke video to the National Enquirer when the guy belting out Van Halen decides to run for Senate in a few years?

First, Facebook attempted to justify the change. But with a threat of legal action from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) looming, and member polls indicating dissatisfaction with the modified TOS, Facebook's team likely realized that a "trust us on this one" attitude wasn't going to calm down the critics.

The pattern was remarkably similar to what unfolded in Facebook's last two big image fiascos: the introduction of the "News Feed," in which a now-popular Facebook feature was rolled out without sufficient privacy controls , and the Beacon advertising program , derided as an invasion of privacy by advocacy groups led by liberal organization MoveOn.org.

In all three situations, Facebook faced varying combinations of user revolt and blogger discord. The similarity between all of them is that in each case, Facebook could do all the explaining it wanted to, and yet critics wouldn't be satisfied until some kind of change was made. Considering Facebook can credit a big part of its success to gradual change and adaptability --in just a few years, it's gone from an elite college directory to the biggest hub for media-sharing on the Web--it ought to be willing to change when the catalyst is member demand rather than the next big trend in social networking.

It's not clear as to how big the alleged "member revolt" over the TOS change actually was. Tens of thousands of people joined protest groups in a matter of a few days, but for a social network with 175 million members across the world, that simply isn't that many. Recall that well over a year ago, when Facebook was significantly smaller than it is now, a fan group dedicated to putting comedian Stephen Colbert on the South Carolina presidential primary ballot hit 1 million members in under a week .

The important part isn't how many people were protesting. Rather, what's worth noting is that no matter how much Facebook tried to douse the flames--a company blog post from CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that not only does Facebook's license not constitute ownership, that it was legally necessary to power the service's social features--vocal members and protest groups weren't satisfied if no change was made. Facebook emphasized, for example, that its license had to respect members' privacy settings, hence restricting any use of content to people in that person's "networks" or friends lists. It didn't do a thing.

Facebook has become a mainstream site. It needs to stay on top of the fact that as the site changes (or "evolves," to use the executive team's preferred term), it doesn't leave any unpleasant vestiges behind. Facebook's terms of service regarding content ownership and licensing, including the controversial change, wouldn't have been unthinkable for a small, closed-doors directory. But for a worldwide social-media site that houses billions of photographs (among other content), they just don't work.

Facebook's terms of service most likely still need extensive tweaking, since the whole "irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license" part of the document is still there and concern about it won't go away. Even Zuckerberg, in his post on Wednesday morning, acknowledged this: "As I said yesterday, we think that a lot of the language in our terms is overly formal and protective so we don't plan to leave it there for long."

It's set up an official member feedback forum for input, working with some of the members who had spearheaded TOS reform efforts.

Facebook can credit its rise to change: being willing to change to fit trends, technology, and the times. But on the flip side, that change has to be consistent. When appropriate, changes in features need to be accompanied by changes in the rules that govern those features. And a service dedicated to the evolution of social interaction needs to be in touch with what the millions of members who enable that social interaction are saying. With three big PR kerfuffles under its belt now, perhaps the company has realized that simply justifying an unpopular, privacy-sensitive change usually isn't enough.

Luckily, Facebook has consistently shown that it listens.

About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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