Like increasing numbers of people in this day and age, I have an account on Facebook. I also have accounts at LibraryThing, Zenfolio, Redbubble, Etsy, Artfire, Twitter, MySpace, Ravelry and probably a few I've forgotten. I also have at least 6 email accounts, a web page, and three online stores. Then there's the two blogs I have here on Typepad. If I had a video camera, I'd probably be adding to YouTube or Vimeo.
In short, I'm a wired woman, very much enmeshed in what the cognescenti like to call "Web 2.0."
As a result of this, and of my years blogging, I've become very much interested in the ways that various online service providers communicate with their clients and the sorts of problems that ensue when they fail to navigate this new environment successfully. (Etsy offers an often astonishing example of what happen when communication breaks down. See Unofficial Etsy News and EtsyBitch for discussions of this and links.)
I've also become increasingly protective of my content; the days when I believed wholeheartedly in the idea that all knowledge should be free has been replaced by the conviction that while knowledge should be spread widely and generously, the people who make the effort to produce it deserve recompense for their efforts. That is, the trade-off of my generosity in this regard is me making enough to eat and pay rent and insurance. I'm willing to share low-res images with the world at large, here and on my other blog and on flickr, but it's an act of temporary generosity on my part, not an abandonment of my interest in the content. If I decide to pull those images, both TypePad and Flickr (and its parent company, Yahoo), agree, as per their Terms of Service, that any license I may have granted them in order to use their sites ends. The licenses they require are also reasonable, related primarily to me giving them permission to show that content to people who visit my sites.
It used to be that this was the case for Facebook as well. Their TOS was a bit more demanding - they wanted a much more extensive license to use our stuff - but, like most such network providers out there, they included a clause that basically said, if you take your stuff off the site, or cancel your account, our right to use it ends.
They have changed that.
As broken by The Consumerist, in a post that ignited the current blog-twitter-facebook firestorm, the new TOS is far more aggressive, granting Facebook the license to not only use its content as part of Facebook's operation, but now opening the door to commercial use and sub-licensing, the ability to terminate that license has been removed.
Note: this is not about giving up copyright, but rather granting license to use. The difference is important in some ways - they are not "stealing your stuff" - but in practice it matters little. The analogy I've been using is this:
Assume you own a house. You have decided that you'd like the income from renting it out, but don't want all the hassle, so you hire a rental management company to handle things for you. Under the old TOS, you allowed the company (Facebook) to do what it needed to do to rent out the place (such as posting pictures of the house in ads), collect the rent, and so on. BUT - and here are the important parts - Facebook was only allowed to rent out the house to people you pre-approved, and if you tired of the arrangement, you could kick out the renters at any time and cancel your arrangement with Facebook. (This would allow you to sell the house, rent it out yourself, or simply enjoy it in private.)
Under the new TOS, Facebook can rent the house out to whomever they wish, for any amount, for any purpose. And there is nothing you can do to cancel the lease or make the tenants move out. Facebook is allowed to rent out your house under these conditions forever.
Some people (like Facebook's Zuckerberg) are trying to explain this away as them not wanting to have to yank things you may have written or posted on other people's Walls or in their InBoxes if they leave. This is duplicitous language at best, as it's the only site that demands such an all-encompassing right - a right which includes commercial use and the right to sub-license. A license to display your content to your friends is one thing (although I would argue that if you're leaving Facebook, you may well want to take all that data with you, especially if you're leaving to avoid certain "friends"); a perpetual license to use your content for commercial purposes that Facebook can share with unspecified third parties is another.
For an excellent comparison of Facebook's new TOS with those of other network sites, see Amanda French's excellent post. The list of trackbacks at the end of comments there is also a good way to see how news of and reactions to the change are spreading.
So the new TOS are in themselves problematic. A lot of artists, writers, musicians, photographers and so on are shitting bricks right now as are people who are wondering if they might look up someday and see a picture of their child in a Facebook advertisement.
(For those of you who smugly intone that everyone should have known better, and that anyone who puts anything on the internet should expect people to steal their stuff, you're missing the point. You're basically like the person who claims that going into the city is dangerous and if you're mugged, it's your fault for being naive. Never mind that you might want to go into the city to see your friends, for work, or to pick your children up for school. You went into the city! You should have stayed home!
The other thing is that this isn't a mere random mugging by some stranger. It's more like one of your co-workers making off with your wallet and credit cards on the basis that you loaned them lunch money last week.)
The problem doesn't stop with the new TOS being onerous. The biggest problem, in my mind, is not the new TOS themselves, although they are pretty bad. The problem is the way that the change was made. Here's the timeline: on February 4th, the new TOS goes up, with language to the effect that any user who makes use of Facebook after that time is agreeing, by using Facebook, to the new Terms. Do they announce this to the Facebook community? Do they send out any emails? Do they issue a press release? Do they add a pop-up message on the log-in page? (btw, I hate this "solution" as the "best" way to let users know of their changes. I'm online so much that I log-in maybe once a month on any one of my sites. If I had to log out and log in every time I visited or left a site, I'd be spending half my online time doing that. I doubt I'm unusual in that - why else would "keep me logged in" buttons exist?)
So... back to the question of communication. Did Facebook, in any real way, let people know that these changes had been made and that using Facebook after February 4th constituted acceptance of the changes?
No. They did not.
The Consumerist post didn't show up until February 15th, eleven days after the fact. The astonishing (and astonished) reaction that has erupted in the wake of that post suggests mightily that the majority of Facebook users had no clue at all that these changes had been made, let alone that they'd "agreed" to them. (Indeed, it is possible that merely reading the announcement constituted agreement, since you'd have to be on Facebook to do so.)
So... a bad change is enacted, and communicated poorly, and it turns into a fait accompli without people's explicit consent.
I can't think of a better example of failed web business practice than that.
So what does this mean for you, if you use Facebook? First, I suggest you go to the Facebook group (yes, I'm aware of the irony of that) People Against the New Terms of Service (TOS) (which has swelled to over 26,000 members in just the last day). I particularly recommend that you read the discussion thread Questions for Facebook, because it provides an excellent sense of what, exactly, is at stake for people who make a living off their content.
Second, I encourage you to re-evaluate how you use the site and what you're willing to cede a perpetual liencese on. I pulled my photo albums, my notes and blog feeds, and removed my blog from the BlogNetworks application. Strictly speaking, this is locking the barn door after the horse has left (since they have archived copies in their servers and I'm supposedly already bound in perpetuity by the new TOS), but it serves as a useful reminder that Facebook can't be trusted to respect my licensing rights as copyright holder. Other people are shrugging their shoulders and some are pulling out of Facebook entirely. Whatever course of action you choose, I recommend taking this as an incentive to learn more about your rights as a copyright holder and what it means to license the use of your work.
Third, I encourage you to spread word of this. Facebook's actions will set a terrible precedent if they are not effectively challenged - both their actions with regards to the terms set out in the TOS, and their actions with regards to how they managed the transition. In this environment, communication and trust are crucial, and Facebook screwed up in a major way on both counts.
Fourth, I suggest investigating alternative venues for your online networking. For all that MySpace is an ugly-looking site, it does offer better licensing terms than Facebook. There are also a number of open-source and do-it-yourself online networks out there. Facebook needs to be pressured both from within (by users and advertisers) and from without (by the media and by competitors) if it is to amend its behavior.
Rana is pissed off with Facebook and blogging about it.