Wednesday, 18 February 2009

How stupid can a company be? A comment on the latest Facebook "Terms of Use" policy disaster

Has anyone ever considererd, that e.g. FedEx or UPS may own the written letters or christmas gifts I send through them to my friends? Of course not. However, when it comes to internet content, these
self-evident truths established as a common sense in modern society over years suddenly seem re-negotiable. Facebook now tried to strech this silent agreement to an extent which could be regarded as ridiculous - if it wasn't so outrageous.

As reported by The Consumerist Blog, Facebook silently amended their existing Terms of Use a few weeks ago by a statement which allows Facebook to

"use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you post"

through Facebook. Basically do everything they want with any personal message or photo you send to your friends, even after you have deleted your account.

The reasons I was outraged was twofold. On the one hand, this clearly is in stark contrast to any prior committments to protect the privacy of Facbook users as they try to establish a dangerous example how ownership over private data of users is misused for commercial purposes in open social networks.

But on the other hand I was furious because I still believe that social networks are the coolest thing that happend to the web in the last years. And by it's awesome usability and great ideas the Facebook application has the potential to set milestone standards for any private or corporate online networking environment in the years to come. However, by messing around with the most important capital they have - the trust of users - through such an outright stupid move Facebook risks that thousands if not millions of users turn their back not only at Facebook, but at the whole social networking approach as such. Simon Davies of Privacy International made a good point when he said that

"...it appears to be going down the same road as Google. Its halo is starting to slip. [...] Now, there are other kids on the block, like Twitter, Facebook can only survive a certain number of disasters like this. It will only last three years if it continues to make these errors".

I hope that this will not be the case though as I just like Facebook too much (the application, not the company that is).

But honestly, how stupid can you be? Following critical discussions around Google's greed for user data and about Facebook's own privacy settings in 2008, the reaction of the public was absolutely forseeable. It seems Facebook has learned nothing from the past as they once again clearly underestimated the power of the community itself. Within only a few days the Facebook group "People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS)" grew up to over 100.000 users and the group "Millions against Facebook's Terms of Service" gained over 2.000.000 members within weeks. It had actually been the first time that I invited ALL my 360 Facebook contacts to a group I've joined. And it was worth it.

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg announced the temorary withdrawl of the new policy and invited the community to participate in the formulation of a Bill of Rights for Facebook users online. A clear proof that the power of the crowd is very much alive. But the damage to the trust of users has already been done. I sincerely hope that this episode will not endanger the further adoption of social networking approaches in the coming time, as I still believe the potential of an open and networked knowledge society outweighs the pitfalls and loophole issues we are trying to sort out right now.