About-Face

Facebook handled its latest privacy kerfuffle more adroitly than prior dust-ups. (Posts here, here, here, and here.) It started when consumer-rights blog Consumerist publicized a recent change in Facebook’s terms of service.  Facebook eliminated the right of users to remove their content–the profiles they created, pictures they posted, etc.–and added a provision giving Facebook the right to retain a user’s content even after the user’s content was terminated. As Consumerist characterized the changes, “anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later.” That’s a scary thought, and it rightly stirred up Facebook users.  At first Facebook couched the changes in ways less threatening than they were perceived–explaining, for instance, that after a user terminated his account the comments he posted on another user’s wall would remain on the site, not that Facebook wanted to use pictures of students doing jelly shots until they were old enough for AARP. Then Facebook caved, reverting to the terms of use in effect before these changes.  The site’s chief privacy officer “characterized the event as a misunderstanding, stemming from a clumsy attempt by the company to simplify its contract with users . . .”

This controversy goes to the heart of the latent ambiguity in Web 2.0 applications.  I create the framework, you add the content, I manipulate/mine/exploit the content for my financial gain.  It is a seductive trap.  Users go to the site and see their profiles, their walls, their pictures, their friends, their lives online.  Sites like Facebook are structures on which users hang whatever interests them, and if enough users hang interesting stuff then more users will come.  They can be brilliant examples of the profound, transformative power of the Internet, the network of networks manifested as a community of communities.  The users provide the material from which it is all woven together but once that material is on the site’s servers its ownership can be murky.  It’s a sure bet that most Web 2.0 terms of use give the sites rights in user-created content that do not correspond with the users’ expectations.  Facebook has trampled users’ expectations before and will do so again.  It’s an inevitable result of its business plan.