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Extra2/18/2009 3:49 PM ET

Facebook backpedals after user fiasco

The social media site is scrambling to undo the damage caused by a change of service terms that gave it a say over user-generated content on its site -- maybe forever. 

By BusinessWeek

It's always a good idea to pay attention to the service terms on social media sites. The importance of reading the fine print became clear over the Presidents Day weekend during a brouhaha over social network Facebook and recent changes to the terms of service users must sign digitally before joining.

Initially, users paid little heed to a move by Facebook in early February to update its terms of service, announced with a brief note on the company blog by legal representative Suzie White, who said Facebook "simplified and clarified a lot of information that applies to you."

At issue is the clause that says users, by signing on, give Facebook "an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license" to use, retain and display content posted to the site. Facebook removed language saying that the license expires when a user leaves the site.

On Feb. 15, The Consumerist, a consumer blog, called attention to the changes, saying, "Now, anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later."

Amid the ensuing uproar in the blogosphere and on Facebook's own profile pages, Facebook executives withdrew the changes -- but still took pains to clarify their moves. A spokesman pointed out in an e-mail that the company wouldn't use information in a way that goes against the privacy settings outlined by users. For instance, it wouldn't publicly show a photo that a user wished to be shared only with friends.

"Any limitations that a user puts on display of the relevant content are respected by Facebook," a company representative pointed out in an e-mail.

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said in a blog entry that his company's policies are comparable to those of e-mail service providers.

"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," Zuckerberg 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 e-mail work," he wrote.

But how comparable are Facebook's service terms to those of other social media sites?

Legal and privacy experts say Facebook was giving itself wider latitude in how it can use content than several other companies that rely on user-generated content.

Continued: Swim to the bottom?

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