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For Facebook, privacy issues remain a factor

Founder's response to worries that the site has eternal control of

February 17, 2009|David Sarno

Facebook's terms of service just got a status update. The social-networking site "wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want."

In a blog post Monday, founder Mark Zuckerberg tried to address privacy concerns raised recently by the Consumerist website, which is owned by Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.

The Consumerist's post pointed out that a change Facebook made to its terms of service left the impression that the site could keep and use copies of user content (photos, notes and personal information, for example) in perpetuity, even if users removed the content and closed their accounts.

"One of the questions about our new terms of use is whether Facebook can use this information forever," Zuckerberg wrote.

It seems, however, he did not answer that question, instead offering a rather roundabout comparison to the way Facebook's e-mail system works. In essence, when you send a message to a friend, Facebook makes a copy -- one for you, one for your buddy. If you decided to quit Facebook, the second copy would remain in the system.

And, as Zuckerberg implied, Facebook also keeps archival copies of users' other information.

But the e-mail example has a major hole in it. Facebook users generally do not "send" photos to one another. Rather, they post images to their own profiles for others to stop by and see. There's no obvious reason Facebook would need to store multiple copies of photographs. As far as the user is concerned, they appear only in one place.

Zuckerberg goes on to write that despite the presence of "overly formal and protective" language that Facebook uses to claim eternal rights to your content, "[i]n reality, we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work."

Facebook did announce the terms of service changes in a Feb. 4 blog post, though it drew no specific attention to the content-ownership amendments. The post focused instead on new prohibitions of harassment and the provision of false information.

User concerns aside, Facebook isn't likely to hatch nefarious plans to sell user photos to the government or dump personal information into the public domain.

But one might expect that such a popular social media company -- one that's dealt with outrage over privacy issues before -- would have taken steps to avoid this type of publicity pothole.

In 2007, Facebook came under fire for launching an advertising feature that automatically sent information about users' online purchases to their friends, which caught many users off guard.

In the current instance, the central question remains unanswered, despite Zuckerberg's response.

Users still don't know whether or why Facebook keeps all their content on file without their permission. That's not just messages, but "photos, text, link, audio, video, designs, ads and anything else that you post on or through the Facebook Service."

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david.sarno@latimes.com

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