Week in review: Facebook's about-face

Social-networking site reverses itself on policy change, while tech reaps windfall from stimulus package. Also: Landmark copyright trial gets under way.

Facebook users take their privacy very seriously--and the social-networking site received that message loud and clear.

Facebook created a firestorm of controversy earlier this week as word spread that it had changed a longstanding but little-publicized claim to an "irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license" for promotional efforts--which would no longer expire if a member deleted his or her Facebook account.

Facebook reorganized its terms of service on February 11. In a blog post, company legal representative Suzie White provided an explanation. "We used to have several different documents that outlined what people could and could not do on Facebook, but now we're consolidating all this information to one central place," White wrote. "We've also simplified and clarified a lot of information that applies to you, including some things you shouldn't do when using the site."

The blog post sounded benign. But the brouhaha arose on Sunday. Blogs declared the change a cause for alarm. Protest groups sprang up on the social-networking site, with more than 100,000 users joining one such group.

Privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center was threatening to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, demanding that the massively popular social-networking service return to its previous policies.

To get an idea how its users felt about the changes, Facebook began a poll in its users' News Feeds, asking them their opinion on the TOS change . And an overwhelming majority favored returning to its previous terms of service.

Facing a revolt of tens of thousands of its users, Facebook quickly announced that it was returning to its previous terms .

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the reversal in a blog post late Tuesday:

Many of us at Facebook spent most of today discussing how best to move forward. One approach would have been to quickly amend the new terms with new language to clarify our positions further. Another approach was simply to revert to our old terms while we begin working on our next version. As we thought through this, we reached out to respected organizations to get their input.

Going forward, we've decided to take a new approach towards developing our terms. We concluded that returning to our previous terms was the right thing for now. 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.

Zuckerberg also said that the company would be adopting a new set of terms that would more carefully take users' rights into consideration.

Washington taps tech
President Obama signed into law a $787 billion stimulus package that includes $7.2 billion for broadband grant and loan programs . The bulk of the funds directed at broadband--$4.7 billion--will be distributed through a program run by the Commerce Department, while $2.5 billion will fall under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department, giving particular emphasis to broadband deployment in rural areas.

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration's "Broadband Technology Opportunities Program" is intended to "award competitive grants to accelerate broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas and to strategic institutions that are likely to create jobs or provide significant public benefits," the bill says. However, no part of the bill, however, defines the terms "broadband," "unserved area," or "underserved area."

In conjunction with the stimulus package, the White House launched Recovery.gov , a site that intends to bring transparency to the government spending. The site includes charts that break down how the money in the legislation will be distributed.

As federal agencies distribute funds, those allocations will be added to the site. A map of the country shows the number of jobs the legislation is expected to create in each state. The site also has a separate page explaining the president's call for transparency, as well as an "about" page that summarizes the bill and provides a timeline of its progress.

However, that transparency was quickly called into question when it was learned that the site was using a robots.txt file to block all requests by search engines that would ordinarily download and index each page to make the information more accessible to the Web-searching public.

Although the White House Web team did not immediately respond to a request for comment, the single-line comment at the top of the file disappeared about three hours after it was brought to the attention of CNET readers.

Meanwhile, more than 28,000 consumers called a federal help line Tuesday, after hundreds of television stations dropped their analog signals.

Even though the national deadline for television stations to switch from analog to digital broadcasting has been pushed back to June, 421 stations made the transition Tuesday , the date of the original deadline. The changeover prompted 28,315 people to call the Federal Communications Commission's DTV transition help line.

The number of calls Tuesday was 37 percent higher than on Monday, when 20,673 people called for help. However, most of the 421 stations that transitioned to digital broadcasting Tuesday did not do so until midnight, so the calls did not represent the full impact of the switchover. From midnight through 11 a.m. Wednesday, the FCC received 6,750 calls for help.

Tech goes to court
The landmark copyright-infringement trial against The Pirate Bay got under way in Sweden this week. The four men behind the popular file-sharing site are accused of helping millions of Internet users illegally download protected movies, music, and computer games. They face up to two years in prison and a fine of 1.2 million kronor ($143,529) if convicted of being accessories and of conspiracy to break Swedish copyright law.

A civil claim brought by a group of media giants is also being heard with the prosecution. The plaintiffs--Warner Bros. Entertainment, MGM Pictures, Columbia Pictures Industries, 20th Century Fox Films, Sony BMG, Universal, and EMI--seek 120 million kronor ($14.3 million) in compensation for lost revenue.

However, on the first day of the long-awaited criminal trial, Swedish prosecutors unexpectedly dropped half the charges against the site's operators. The amended charges focus on the act of making the material available.

"It's a largely technical issue that changes nothing in terms of our compensation claims and has no bearing whatsoever on the main case against The Pirate Bay. In fact, it simplifies the prosecutor's case by allowing him to focus on the main issue, which is the making available of copyrighted works."

A couple in Pittsburgh who sued Google claiming that its Street View feature is a reckless invasion of their privacy have lost their case . Aaron and Christine Boring sued the Internet search giant in April, alleging that Google "significantly disregarded (their) privacy interests" when Street View cameras captured images of their house beyond signs marked "private road."

However, the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania wasn't impressed by the suit and dismissed it (PDF), saying the Borings "failed to state a claim under any count."

Also of note
Verizon will begin testing 4G service this year and launch it commercially in at least 25 to 30 markets in the U.S. in 2010, CTO Dick Lynch said during an interview with CNET News at the 2009 GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona...Fresh from removing content from TV.com, Hulu has now requested that Boxee, the maker of media-center software, stop making Hulu's videos available ...A new service lets cell phone users unmask the Caller ID on anonymous calls.

 

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