Facebook Rules

20 Feb Facebook Rules

New York Times, February 18, 2009
Earlier this month, Facebook deleted a provision from its terms of service that said users could remove their content at any time, and added new language that said it would retain users’ content after an account was terminated. Waves of protests from users ensued. On Wednesday, Facebook, trying to quell anger among its tens of millions of users, reversed its new policy. Why the privacy backlash from those who happily plaster their pages with personal information? What do social networking sites like Facebook owe their users? Facebook’s decision to revert to its earlier terms of service is a real victory for its users. In the past, it often fell to government regulators or the courts to rein in overly ambitious companies that wanted to take full advantage of information provided by users and visitors. The Facebook incident shows the promise of the Internet — the ability to harness the power of a crowd to police potential abuse in a networked community. Many experts bemoan the fact that people — particularly young people — don’t seem to care about privacy or who has their information. Yet the Facebook backlash shows that users — using Facebook itself — can effectively demand greater control over their personal information, content and relationships. The shift is particularly heartening at a time when the law is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges posed by social networking sites. There is no clear legal principle that defines who “owns” the photos uploaded to a digital photo album, or a comment posted by one user on someone else’s Facebook Wall. What do we do when somebody uses Facebook as a tool to attack another? How do we make sure that our privacy is respected when our personal information is in others’ hands? These are just a few of the questions that remain unresolved about Facebook, which besides being a networking site is a personal communication medium, fast becoming a substitute for personal email accounts. We may soon look back at this episode and recognize that it was a watershed event. Advocates, regulators, attorneys and other professionals will continue to have a role in defending digital rights. But online users are showing themselves to be a growing force in defining what they want protected.