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Facebook backtracks on terms of use after protests

February 19, 2009|Mark Milian

Facebook Inc.'s latest capitulation to offended users offered another reminder of the social network's power for self-criticism.

The Palo Alto company rescinded a controversial change to its terms of use late Tuesday after thousands of members protested that Facebook was claiming ownership of all photos and other material posted to the site.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said that wasn't the intention. But Facebook reverted to a previous version of its legal user guidelines that didn't include the disputed clause. Zuckerberg said the company would work to revise the policies, which Facebook calls its "governing document," with feedback from its 175 million users.

"Given its importance, we need to make sure the terms reflect the principles and values of the people using the service," he wrote on Facebook's corporate blog. "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."

The company is no stranger to controversy. It has faced strong user backlash to features including Beacon, its advertising service, and News Feed, its system for tracking and broadcasting users' moves to their online friends.

In this case, users weren't content to hand Facebook the rights to their personal data. They also were unsatisfied by a Zuckerberg blog post Monday that many thought amounted to "just trust us." Users carried out their protests on the website, using the tools Facebook provides for posting blog entries and rallying around causes.

Zuckerberg has compared the website to a nation, saying that its user base would make Facebook the world's sixth most populous country.

This week's dissent was akin to that of a political protest. But Facebook took the state analogy to a new level, creating an online group called the Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that it's using to collect suggestions from users. When they logged in late Tuesday and Wednesday, Facebook members were alerted to the changes and directed to the group page.

"Facebook doesn't claim rights to any of your photos or other content," the page says. "We need a license in order to help you share information with your friends, but we don't claim to own your information."

Now Facebook is going back to the drawing board to craft a less divisive set of terms of service. The company will put together a more approachable document with less formal language, Zuckerberg wrote on the blog.

"They need to have two-way conversations with their users about their terms of service and not just talk to the lawyers," said Steven Swimmer, a social media consultant in Los Angeles. "I thought their response was excellent."

It remains to be seen how many of the suggestions actually factor in to the new terms of service.

"There is a kind of deceptiveness to the way this thing happened and the way it was pulled back," said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard University. "People will have legitimate suspicions until they see the result."

The Consumerist, a blog run by watchdog group Consumers Union, uncovered the initial change to the terms Sunday, thanks to a tip e-mailed by a reader. Chris Walters, the writer of that blog post, applauded the decision to listen to user comments.

Mina Kim, an actress in Los Angeles, said the flap was a wake-up call about the risks of posting personal data to the Web.

"It makes you think about how these terms can be changed at any time," she said. "Maybe right now we own our photos, but what's going to stop Facebook from changing that down the line?"

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mark.milian@latimes.com

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