Facebook Backtracks on TOS Policy Changes

Facebook privacy reactions

After members cried foul over Facebook’s changes to its Terms of Service (TOS) agreement, the social networking site is reconsidering the move — turning back the clock on modifications and vowing to include user input before pushing out a new policy.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a blog post this morning that Facebook will be reverting to its former TOS. He added that the company is still planning a new TOS agreement, but plans to take a new approach in crafting it.

“Our next version will be a substantial revision from where we are now,” Zuckerberg said in the post. “It will reflect the principles around how people share and control their information, and it will be written clearly in language everyone can understand. Since this will be the governing document that we’ll all live by, Facebook users will have a lot of input in crafting these terms.”

In his post, Zuckerberg said the process of hammering out a new TOS should be completed in the next few weeks. He also encouraged members to provide feedback byjoining
a new group called the Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

Facebook did not respond to requests for further comment by press time.

The news comes just days after Facebook’s TOS changes sparked off user complaints. The Consumerist, a unit of Consumers Union, first noted the changes in its blog.

The complaints centered around one clause in particular that Facebook had added to its terms. That clause granted Facebook “an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license to use, adapt and distribute” user-generated content, even if an account is deleted.

Previously, the user license granted to Facebook expired when a user’s account and content were deleted. The Consumerist described the change as “a seemingly slight but very important (and disturbing) change.”

Facebook users responded swiftly, creating a protest group, People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS), which now claims 64,000 members.

By Monday morning, Zuckerberg had responded with a blog post explaining reasons behind the changes, which he said enabled Facebook to perform its task of sharing content among members.

“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,” he wrote. “Without this license, we couldn’t help people share that information.”

He defended allowing a user’s content to remain after an account is deactivated.

“When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox,” he wrote. “Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this more clear.”

Zuckerberg added that issues over privacy and content access are still being figured out, and that missteps were part of the process.

“It’s difficult terrain to navigate and we’re going to make some missteps, but as the leading service for sharing information we take these issues and our responsibility to help resolve them very seriously,” he wrote.

But industry observers said Zuckerberg’s explanation didn’t go far enough to soothe user outrage over the move and concerns about their rights.

Now, however, the newest policy change is being seen a smart move, according to at least one industry observer.

“This was a boneheaded misstep and the groundswell in opposition proves that if you don’t address these kinds of issues upfront, it can blow into a firestorm,” said social media consultant Paul Gillin. “This is a lesson learned about what happens when you don’t engage your users in a potentially controversial issue.”

A blog post today by Facebook spokesperson Barry Schnitt called Facebook’s turnaround a victory for members and thanked them for their feedback.

“I hope you don’t think your participation in this discussion was a waste of time,” he wrote, noting that users’ questions helped Facebook in its decision-making process.

“It was never our intention to confuse people or make them uneasy about sharing on Facebook,” he wrote. “I also want to be very clear that Facebook does not, nor have we ever, claimed ownership over people’s content. Your content belongs to you.”

The TOS debate is not the first run-in Facebook has had with users over privacy concerns. The site’s controversial Beacon service automatically placed ads in members profiles based on their activities — and became a lightning rod for criticism in 2007. Facebook ultimately apologized and pulled the service in response to users’ outcry, but the product still resulted in a pair of class-action lawsuits.

Update adds comments from Gillin.

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