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Facebook terms of use cause alarm

Kaitlynn Riely | Thursday, February 26, 2009

This is the first installment of a three-part series that will explore the recent Terms of Use controversy involving Facebook and delve into the way interaction with and opinion of the site has changed since 2004, when Notre Dame students were first able to become users.

The Consumerist, a consumer issues blog, posted a story Feb. 15 that caused alarm throughout the Facebook user community and began a stream of complaints that quickly prompted Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of the popular social networking site, to reverse a change made to the site’s terms of use.

The blog post at consumerist.com pointed out that Facebook had changed some important language in its terms, which could affect the privacy of Facebook members.

When a person signs up to join Facebook, he agrees to the terms of use. In doing so, he grants Facebook a license to his user content. Early in February, Facebook removed the following lines from its terms of use, The Consumerist blog reported:

“You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.”

Gordon Wishon, Notre Dame’s Chief Information Officer, Associate Vice President and Associate Provost, said the posting of terms of use language is fairly common on the Web.

“Every company that provides services or software on the Internet to a community of users typically protects its intellectual property rights,” Wishon said. “The question that often arises is then, in the course of normal use of the service, who actually owns the content and what rights does the company providing the service have to the content? That’s exactly what’s come up in the case of Facebook.”

The Consumerist’s Feb. 15 blog post, with the alarmist headline “Facebook’s New Terms of Service: ‘We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever,'” had more than half a million views and propelled coverage of the story by other news media.

The concern raised throughout the Internet did not go unnoticed by Zuckerberg. The Facebook founder posted an item on his site titled “On Facebook, People Own and Control Their Information” in the late afternoon on Feb. 16. He said the site had updated its terms of use on Feb. 4 to clarify points about information ownership. He wrote several paragraphs outlining Facebook’s philosophy on privacy and why the terms were edited.

“Our philosophy is that people own their own information and control who they share it with,” Zuckerberg wrote. “When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn’t help people share that information.”

Most people do not read through the terms of use before choosing “I Agree,” Wishon said.

“The typical user isn’t even aware of the concerns or knowledgeable enough to ask the right questions, to look for the right language in the end user licensing agreement or terms of service,” he said.

It is “essential” that people look at the terms of service for all sites before agreeing to it, he said.

In his post, Zuckerberg spoke of the complexity of the terms language and of the management of the site content itself. Giving people full ownership and control of their information so they can turn it off at anytime and enabling people to share information with others and using shared information are two positions “at odds with each other,” Zuckerberg said.

“There’s no system today that enables me to share my email address with you and then simultaneously lets me control who you share it with and also lets you control what services you share it with,” he wrote.

But shortly after midnight Feb. 18, Zuckerberg and Facebook reversed the terms of use changes. Prompted by feedback from users, Zuckerberg decided to go back to the previous terms until they can create, with input from Facebook users, a clearly written set of terms that will govern the way users interact with the site and vice versa.

It was “gratifying” to see that users recognized the seriousness of the issue, Wishon said, and also that Facebook acknowledged it needed to take different steps to ensure user confidentiality.

Zuckerberg invited users to join the conversation about the governing documents in the “Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” group. The new Terms will be unveiled in “the next few weeks,” Zuckerberg wrote Feb. 18.

Wishon said he was surprised by the initial changes to the terms of use on Facebook.

“It was surprising to find that at least there was an interpretation of the new terms of service that suggested that Facebook was reducing the level of protection, or making claims that they hadn’t previously made to content,” Wishon said. “I was happy to see, of course, the company reverse that position and change the language so it was more clear what their intent was.”

Wishon said his impression of Facebook and of Zuckerberg is that they are concerned about the privacy rights of users.

“I think that their prior history has shown that they do have a concern,” he said. “There are others that simply don’t have that same level of concern, and the challenge of course is for the end user really to know, and in fact the end user never knows, what’s in the mind of the people that are running these companies,” he said.

The Office of Information Technologies (OIT) has not performed a survey of the number of Facebook users at Notre Dame, but Wishon said he would guess the percentage is “quite high.”

Facebook lists 27,638 people in the Notre Dame network. Of course, not all of these people are students at the University.

But Facebook has infiltrated Notre Dame student life to a great degree since its inception. Friendships are confirmed on the site, event invitations are sent out and photo albums shared.

The second installment of this series will explore how Facebook use has evolved at Notre Dame, from 2004 to now.