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Facebook Users Angry Over Change In Legal Terms
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Facebook Users Angry Over Change In Legal Terms

Digital Life


Facebook users are in a twitter over the issue of who owns the rights to content that users post on the social networking site. Facebook updated the language in its terms of service earlier this month. You agree to those terms when you sign up.

BLOCK: Well, a blog post on the Web site, Consumerist, over the weekend, called attention to the new language, under the headline, "Facebook's New Terms of Service, We Can Do Anything We Want with Your Content, Forever." That blog posted, drawing about half a million views already. And the founder of Facebook has responded, trying to ease users' concerns.

Professor William McGeveran joins us from Minneapolis to talk through the issues here. He specializes in information law and data privacy at the University of Minnesota Law School. Thanks for being with us.

Professor WILLIAM MCGEVERAN (Information Law and Data Privacy, University of Minnesota Law School): Thanks, pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: And as you read the language, do you think that Facebook has fundamentally changed something about the agreement with users here or is this kind of legalese that we're getting bogged down in?

Prof. MCGEVERAN: More of the later. It's pretty much legalese. And, in particular, I think what this change did was draw attention to a reality about information on Facebook that's already been true on Facebook and lots of other sites. It's just something that users don't think about.

BLOCK: And Facebook isn't making the point, look, if you send a message through Facebook - even if you delete your account - that message will still live on, on the page of the person you sent it to.

Prof. MCGEVERAN: That's right. And that's the benign explanation for why they made the change that they did. It's also true that their terms of service seek much broader and more sweeping permissions, though. And by making those permissions last after you've already left Facebook.

BLOCK: And I guess where this might get more pernicious would be, you know, if I post pictures or video on my own Facebook page, then delete my account, what happens to those if Facebook still owns them and has rights to them? What could they do with them?

Prof. MCGEVERAN: That's right. 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. 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 of your friends. And I think that the change in the terms of service woke people up to that reality.

BLOCK: Facebook has been criticized over privacy issues before. I'm thinking of the ad program called Beacon.

Prof. MCGEVERAN: Yes, the Beacon backlash, which happened in late 2007, involved advertisements that were sent to your Facebook friends when you did something at another Web site. So, if you went and bought a sweater from a vendor while you were also logged into Facebook in another part of your computer, then that vendor could send a message to all your friends saying - your friend bought this sweater and you should try, too. Here, click this link.

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.

BLOCK: Well, if you look at the response to this from the Facebook founder, from Mark Zuckerberg. He says, in reality, we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. I mean, it sounds like he's saying - hey, you can trust us. We're going to do the right thing here.

Prof. MCGEVERAN: He is saying just trust us. And this is a pattern with Facebook in general. 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 and then explaining afterwards, and apologizing and playing catch-up.

BLOCK: So, user, beware.

Prof. MCGEVERAN: Absolutely. User, beware. And it was true before these terms of service change, just as much as it is now.

BLOCK: We've been talking with William McGeveran who specializes in information law and data privacy at the University of Minnesota Law School. Professor McGeveran, thanks very much.

Prof. MCGEVERAN: Okay, thank you very much.

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