Facebook and the ownership society

February 17, 2009

Facebook has experienced its fair share of user revolts and public relations black-eyes in its five-year lifespan.

So CEO Mark Zuckerberg knows the drill when controversy is in the air and he moved with alacrity on the President’s Day holiday Monday to defuse the latest kerfuffle.

“We wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want,” Zuckerberg reassured his flock of more than 150 million Facebook users in a blog post. “The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work.”

The missive was in response to a warning a day earlier on The Consumerist blog, owned by Consumers Union advocacy group, about recent changes to Facebook’s Terms of Service.

According to The Consumerist, Facebook recently removed a provision in the terms of service that stipulated that when a user closes an account, any rights that Facebook claimed to that user’s comments, photos and other original content expires. The implication of the change, The Consumerist said, is that Facebook has the right to do whatever it wants with a person’s content forever.

The post garnered more than 300,000 views and thousands of comments, according to the New York Times.

Facebook faced unrest among its user ranks in 2007 when it introduced the Beacon program, which alerts a user’s friends to their online shopping habits and other activities. After a backlash over privacy concerns, Facebook made it easier for users to turn the feature off.

Zuckerberg didn’t appear to back down on the latest incident, but he sought to mollify concerns by explaining that the situation was not a change in Facebook’s policy towards content ownership but simply some “overly formal” legal language that addresses a fundamental reality of how services like Facebook operate.

When a person sends a message to a friend, Zuckerberg explained, that friend also has a copy of the message. Even if the original user de-activates their account, the friend retains a copy of the message, similar to email.

“There is 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,” wrote Zuckerberg.

He promised to post further thoughts soon. The question is whether users will beat him to it.

(Photo: Reuters)

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