The events surrounding Facebook this week are a troubling glimpse of life with the Web of the future.
In case you missed the coverage, here's a quick recap: At the beginning of the week, the blog The Consumerist noticed that Facebook had quietly changed its "terms of service" to its users. It apparently was the first to notice this change, despite the fact that it occurred two weeks before.
In full-blown legalese, Facebook basically told its users that when they posted personal information to their Facebook pages (including photos, the music they were listening to at that moment, or their favorite movies), Facebook owned that information forever and could use it in just about any manner the company wished.
Facebook's apparent secretiveness in making the switch suggested it anticipated a backlash if word got out.
This being the age of the blogosphere, in which a vast army of citizen journalists are continuously picking over every government and corporate document (would the traditional media have ever spotted this change, much less written about it?), Facebook should have known that its little maneuver would not go unnoticed for long. And indeed, once word got out, all hell broke out across the Internet.
Facebook quickly moved to put out the fire. By Monday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had already responded on his blog, saying: "Our philosophy is that people own their information and control whom they share it with.
"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."
Needless to say, anybody who read this comment and then looked at the very precise terminology of the new terms of service found Zuckerberg's comments a bit ... disingenuous.
Keep in mind, that was just Monday. We're talking Internet time here, so things are speeded up about 10 times, and it's not unusual anymore to have a scandal erupt, spread around the planet, be commented on by hundreds of Web sites, mobilize political action groups in response, and die down soon thereafter.
And that's pretty much what happened here. By Tuesday, the entire Web world was talking about the Facebook problem.
That morning, the Internet user advocacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) quickly filed a 25-page formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that Facebook had violated the law by altering the licensing of its users. The complaint was supported by two dozen other Internet privacy and civil liberties groups.
And that was only part of the story. Even as EPIC was filing, on Facebook, itself, a user named Julius Harper Jr. was forming a "People Against the New Terms of Service" user group.
It grew within hours to 90,000 members -- a phenomenal accomplishment in the real world, but a not-uncommon event in the 175-million-member Facebook universe. Working with his groupmates, Harper even composed a list of "Three Big Questions for Facebook" on the change and submitted it to the company's legal department.
By Tuesday, less than 48 hours after all of this erupted, Facebook caved.
The company called EPIC to say that it was thinking about returning to its original terms of service -- and EPIC agreed to drop the complaint if they did so.