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The farcical Facebook fiasco

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 25, 2009 7:39 AM

The recent brouhaha over Facebook changing its terms of service offers a good illustration of how easily issues can be blown out of proportion in online discussion.

Columnists, bloggers, and a wide assortment of Facebook users became upset when a rumor began to spread that the popular social-networking company had inserted some nefarious new legal language into the user license that everyone who logs onto the site agrees to follow. The accusation was that the new terms gave Facebook complete ownership over any information its users upload to the site. However, this was not the case.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded personally to the controversy in an attempt to allay users’ concerns.

“Our philosophy is that people own their information and control who they share it with,” he wrote on Facebook’s corporate blog. “When people share 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.”

Both software engineers and lawyers user a lot of specialized terminology. And by no means are most of Facebook’s 175 million users familiar with either profession’s jargon. Thus, attempts by Facebook’s lawyers to draft the company’s terms of service in such a way as to allow its programmers to get the site to function properly are bound to sometimes be misunderstood.

The vast majority of Facebook users have likely never given much thought to how the site actually works. Though one’s account can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet, Facebook actually stores all of its users’ data on its own servers. Whenever an individual uploads a picture of party, writes a message to a friend, or takes any other action on the site, Facebook stores that information for later use. Then, when another user views that picture or reads that message, Facebook’s servers send copies of that data to the user’s computer. Furthermore, as Zuckerberg explained on his company’s blog, even if a user deletes her or his Facebook account, pictures or messages that person sent to others who have retained their accounts will not be erased. In order to be able to do any of this, Facebook must maintain the legal right to store and publish any data users add to the site.

Getting upset about Facebook’s terms of service is similar to becoming indignant that others keep copies of e-mails or even old-fashioned paper letters that one sends to them. As soon as one sends information out to others on the Internet, that information is no longer ever fully private or protected. That’s just common sense. But, for whatever reason, it’s a concept that some of the more excitable assembly of Facebook’s 175 million-member user base doesn’t seem to have grasped. And that’s not even the strangest concern that some of these misinformed reactionaries have.
Rather than simply being worried about the privacy and security of their personal information, some Facebook users have expressed concern that the company might be planning to steal their valuable data and make money with it. The absurdity of such a proposition is self-evident: The vast majority of the material users upload to Facebook is of very little value. If college students are really concerned that Facebook’s owners may be plotting to enrich themselves by surreptitiously grabbing up the intellectual property rights to their pictures of keg stands and notes listing 25 random personal facts, they need to take some economics courses. Frankly, almost nothing posted on Facebook has any value at all.

People who use free online sites need to remember that information handed over to such services is never truly private or secure. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t use these sites, just that they should be cautious about how they do-and that they should stop acting scandalized when confronted with such an obvious fact.


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