Whither social networking: Facebook folds over controversial conditions

Facebook caused a stir earlier this week by unilaterally changing their terms of service in a way lots of people didn’t like. On Wednesday they bowed to the pressure and reverted the change. The incident has brought the issues of copyright, privacy and social networking to the front pages of the worlds newspapers.

Social networking is a novel area. I work with academics who are all busy researching the myriad ways in which we might be able to take advantage of these new technologies. Social networking is exciting and new. It’s also full of people and companies with different agendas and beliefs and sometimes those things clash.

If you join a social networking site and upload content you’re naive if you think you can retain control over it. However if you’re a company that runs a social networking site and you try, or appear to be trying, to exploit your users you can expect a community backlash. That’s what has happened to Facebook this week.

We must give credit to Facebook for owning up to their mistake, reversing the changes and starting a consultation process over how to clarify their terms. However I note they’ve done this kind of thing before: Beacon was before my time as a user but I still remember it. Or maybe they’re learning from their mistakes and we should cut them some slack. It’s been suggested that trial and error might be the best (only?) way to approach this brave new world.

One could argue simplistically that we should all boycott social networking sites until their terms are perfectly in their users’ favour, their interfaces are open and interoperable, and their data are totally portable. However I don’t believe we’ll ever reach that position – and we certainly won’t if we don’t engage in constructive discussions and try to reach a compromise with which the majority of people are comfortable.

So yes, I use facebook. No, I’m not particularly happy with it. Yes, I am careful what I post there; and yes, I feel I’ve been a little bit lax and had my fingers burned this time. But no, I don’t feel like abandoning social networking as a cause lost to corporate exploitation either. It’s too important for that.

I’m proud of the Facebook community for spotting the issue, bringing it to the attention of the company and applying pressure until they got a result. In this way we slowly discover what the world believes to be acceptable practice for online social networks. The TOS might say that Facebook can do what it likes, but Facebook is nothing without its users, and in the macro sense this incident has shown that the community can have just as much clout as a legal document*.

My guess is that Facebook might now implement a Creative Commons licensing feature similar to that used by Flickr. This would be a Good Thing – there would be more Free and Some-Rights-Reserved content in the world (which Facebook could exploit if it wanted to) and users would get to control the terms under which their content can be used by others.

Whatever happens I think the debate around the social responsibilities of running and using social networks has advanced a step this week.

* In my opinion it’s unlikely that Facebook could have persuaded a court of the legality of a TOS change that retrospectively granted them rights over content submitted under a different agreement. Also, in the UK, such a clause might be caught by the consumer protection laws surrounding unfair contracts. IANAL.

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