Facebook's Privacy Flap: What Really Went Down, and What's Next

facebook is still in the privacy hot seat
Facebook may have done an about-face with its policies on using user data, but the social network's struggle to balance business with privacy is far from over.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company would revert to its old terms of use in a blog posting late Tuesday night. The decision followed wide-reaching outrage over the service's updated policies on user-generated content. The changes essentially gave Facebook a "perpetual" license to use any uploaded materials within advertising or any number of other venues--even if the user had long since deleted the content, or even deleted the account.

Advocates in Action

Facebook's backtracking announcement came just hours after word broke that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., intended to file a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over the altered licenses.

"What we sensed was taking place was that Facebook was asserting a greater legal authority over the user-generated content," says EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg. "It represented a fundamental shift in terms of how the company saw its ability to exercise control over what its users were posting, and that really concerned us."

Shortly after Rotenberg shared those concerns and his complaint-filing intentions with PC World, he received a phone call.

"We got a call late last night from Facebook and they said that they were thinking of going back to their original terms of service," he says. "We said that if they would agree to do that, we wouldn't see the need to file the complaint."

The complaint--which ran 25 pages and had support from about a dozen other consumer and civil liberty groups--essentially asked the FTC to require Facebook to readopt its previous policies. The fact that Facebook ended up doing so on its own was a pleasant, though perhaps unexpected, surprise.

"We've been in this situation before with other companies that have really dug in their heels and tried to fight it out in the courts and the media. I think Facebook did the right thing," Rotenberg says.

The Power of Protest

Rotenberg gives much of the credit to Julius Harper Jr., a 25-year-old who formed the now-88,000-member-strong "People Against the New Terms of Service" Facebook group. Harper's efforts began as a simple protest, but they quickly became much more. He and other members, for example, formulated a list of "three big questions for Facebook" and submitted it to the service's legal team.

The list asked why the terms of service seemed to give Facebook the right to use user photos if the company didn't intend to exercise that option. "Will I wind up seeing pictures of my niece staring at me from a bus stop at some point and be told I shoulda read the fine print?" one user asked.

The note also raised the issue of what would happen if Facebook were to be bought out by another corporation at some point in the future, and the new owner were to hold less honorable intentions than Zuckerberg and his team may now. The updated terms of service, the document suggested, would give that owner powerful rights over user-generated content being created today.

"As we all know, corporate strategies adjust, CEOs change, boards of directors shuffle and companies get bought out. We're just looking for some legal assurances in writing that if and when that happens, we won't be left in the cold," the group stated.

Harper and his supporters received a response from a Facebook spokesperson Tuesday night. It said that executives realized "the new version of the terms might technically permit some of the hypothetical situations" the group had raised. It went on to assure that those weren't situations Facebook "had in mind" when updating its terms. Those kinds of consequences, however--even if unintended--were exactly what had troubled Harper.

"The legal language is very overarching and very scary if you really take a minute to think about what the implications are," Harper says. "[It] was basically saying, 'We own you.' And so that’s where the issue came from."

Now, Harper and his followers are claiming a victory--but the biggest work, staying involved in Facebook's efforts to reformulate its terms, is still ahead of them.

"What this issue is that I hope Facebook will stick with is that they should set a precedent by rewriting their terms of service in English," Harper says. "I'm hoping this will affect other companies in the industry as well, because Facebook is just one of many, many services that people like me use."

An Ongoing Effort

For privacy advocate group EPIC, a victory isn't yet so clear.

"It's great that Facebook has responded, and I think that’s a step in the right direction--but these issues don’t go away, and it's going to be an ongoing concern for users of new network-based services until we get comprehensive privacy laws in place," Rotenberg says.

In the immediate future, EPIC plans to keep a close eye on Facebook's progress and the rights of its users. Rotenberg promises he and his colleagues will step in if the need arises--and won't hesitate to appeal to the FTC if it becomes necessary, either.

"People shouldn’t have to run around trying to think about which stuff they're going to delete," Rotenberg says. "People shouldn’t be in that position. They should be able to sign up for a service with the confidence that their rights will be respected."

One new concern already on the horizon comes with Facebook's updated advertising models. The site is now utilizing APIs to pull user data off of status updates, Rotenberg says, then use it within ads placed on the page.

"People ... who care about privacy on Facebook typically don’t install applications, because they know that applications are pulling down a lot of their data. But if you're not installing applications and you learn that the information that you're putting in your status updates is being provided for advertising, you might be a little upset," Rotenberg says.

Luckily, organizations like EPIC are on the watch. And so, too, are thousands of regular users--people just like Julius Harper Jr.

"The fact that [the protest group] blew up so huge has to do more with how people on the service felt way more than it had to do with me," Harper says. "Had I not done it, it would have happened some other way. But I'm grateful that I got to be part of the process and make a real difference on something that affects millions of people."

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