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

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.

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