Blown To Bits

Your Facebook Data Belongs to Facebook — Now and Forever

Monday, February 16th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

It’s always sobering to read those “I agree” documents you have to click on to register for a Web service. Almost no one ever does.

Facebook’s has always given it blanket rights to do what it wishes with the stuff you post on your Facebook page, including

to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.

There’s more, about how Facebook can transfer those rights, and so on. What’s new today is that the agreement used to say that you could take back ownership of the data if you closed your account. No more. Now they own it forever, even if you decide you want to take it back.

So if you are, say, a college student foolish enough to post a stupid picture of yourself drunk or half-naked, and then you think better of it, and in fact think better of the whole Facebook idea and close your account, and in ten years you are running for Congress, Facebook will be perfectly within its rights to scan its records of dead accounts and sell the rights to that photo to the Associated Press, or People Magazine.

Would they do that? No way to be sure. Rationally we might choose to think that would be a stupid thing to do from a business standpoint, as it would discourage others from using the site. But such decisions are not always made rationally. And why would they be changing their policy now if they don’t anticipate doing exactly this in the future?

Added 8:30 PM 2/16: Mark Zuckerberg has blogged about this. He defends Facebook’s “philosophy” and what it would do “in reality” (as opposed, I guess, to what it has the legal right to do):

In reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want.

Indeed, in reality, Facebook would probably realize what a losing long-term business proposition it would be to sell your drunken photos of yourself to the media.

Which is why, when Facebook did “in reality” launch Beacon and shared information in a way many Facebook users did NOT want, it quickly did an about-face. There seems to be push-back assembling again, though in the case of this change, no one can right now detect any difference.

Is there really no way to draft the legal language so it matches the reality of Facebook’s presumably good intentions?

2 Responses to “Your Facebook Data Belongs to Facebook — Now and Forever”

  1. Adam Smith Says:

    > And why would they be changing their policy now if they don’t anticipate doing exactly this in the future?

    I certainly don’t trust Facebook’s discretion in how users’ data is subsequently disclosed.

    All the same, there may be a prosaic explanation for the policy change. Truly deleting data is hard — it requires careful system management and tracking of where a user’s data wind up. If data are used for testing, or digests of them are distributed to advertisers, then it may become extremely difficult for Facebook to actually remove the information of a user who closes an account from the system — even if they are acting in good faith. Facebook’s lawyers and engineers may simply have decided that it is easier to unfetter their hands ahead of time.

    I am not suggesting that systems should be engineered this way, nor that Facebook is setting a good precedent (they’re not!). But they may not yet plan on “being evil” (to borrow a line from another organization that has progressively diversified its usage of users’ data).

    Of course, once the fetters are off, temptation may be hard to resist.

  2. Blown to Bits » Blog Archive » Facebook Getting Scammy Says:

    [...] Your Facebook Data Belongs to Facebook — Now and Forever [...]