Facebook Users Angry Over Change In Legal Terms

Editor's Note: Since this story aired, Facebook has announced it will be reverting to its previous Terms of Use. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has issued a statement on the company's blog.
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Facebook users are up in arms over who owns the rights to content that users post on the social networking site. Facebook updated the language in its terms of use earlier this month; users agree to those terms when they sign up with the site.

A blog post on Consumerist called attention to the new terms and has drawn about half a million views so far.

William McGeveran, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who specializes in information law and data privacy, tells NPR's Melissa Block that the updated terms of use aren't a revolutionary change in the company's agreement with users but rather seem to be more of a legal change.

"I think what this change did was draw attention to a reality about information on Facebook that has already been true on Facebook and lots of other sites — and that's just something users don't think about," McGeveran says. "So the backlash is about the normal state of affairs, not some new change."

McGeveran says Facebook's new terms of use seek broad and sweeping permissions that allow the use and distribution of users' data, even after they have left Facebook and deleted their accounts.

"A lot of the fears around this are not that well-justified, because I don't think that Facebook has a lot of pernicious uses for your photos of Aunt Martha, even if they somehow own them, even after you've left Facebook," McGeveran says. "But what I think this underscores is the more general principle that everything you put on Facebook, you're giving Facebook rights to for advertising purposes, for purposes of building a better profile of you and your friends, and I think that the change in the terms of service woke people up to that reality."

Facebook has been criticized over privacy issues before, most notably with regards to the advertising program Beacon. Beacon sent notifications to a user's Facebook friends when the user did something at another Web site, like purchasing a movie ticket or sweater.

"People found that really offensive, and tens of thousands joined a protest group within Facebook asking them to change the policy. Ultimately, they did have to back down considerably from that program," McGeveran says.

The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has issued a response on the company blog in an effort to ease users' concerns.

"He is saying, 'Just trust us.' And this is a pattern with Facebook in general," McGeveran says. "They have a pretty bad record for being transparent with their users about their intentions, given that they are a company founded on transparency and information sharing. So with Beacon, and previously with the introduction of a new feature called News Feed, Facebook made a major change, didn't lay the groundwork to reassure their users, the users revolted, and then Facebook found itself in the position of explaining afterwards and apologizing and playing catch-up. And the same thing seems to be happening here."

So it's 'user beware,' McGeveran says, "and it was true before these terms of service changed just as much as it is now. I don't think the terms of service really make a dramatic difference in how public you're being with the information you post on Facebook."

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