Feb 20 2009

Facebook Changed Their TOS. So What.

Two weeks ago, Facebook updated their terms of service. This past weekend someone wrote a blog entry pointing out the changes, and that people should maybe worry.

And people flipped the frack out….about something they didn’t understand. At all.

Sheesh. Before freaking out, let’s talk about a bit of the basic information behind this first. This issue involves user data and a site’s Terms of Service.

1) Terms of Use/Service and Privacy Policies

Every single site out there could benefit from a Terms of Service/Use & Privacy Policy, and any commercial site launching without one is asking for trouble. The documents generally cover what a user can and cannot do with the site, what the site is responsible for in the event of illegal activity or police involvement, what the site will or won’t do with a user’s information, and the typical indemnification “it’s not our fault if your computer breaks.” ToS aren’t unique to websites or tech, but sites are bringing these things to the attention of mainstream folks a bit more.

These docs are important for the legal protection of the company, but also to make as clear as possible to a user what will be done with any information they may provide. I don’t have one for this blog, because, well, I don’t much care, this isn’t a business, it’s my blabbering and your comments here are your own. But folks who take their blogs a bit more seriously will include something.

The moment you hit a website you’ve agreed to their Terms of Service, whether there’s a registration process or not (“your use of this site is governed by this agreement between you and whatevercompany, inc”). Ignoring a site’s terms is the same as signing up for a credit card without reading the fine print.  One month later, you get your bill:

“I didn’t see anything about 35% interest!?”
“Sure you did, you signed on the bottom of the form that you agreed to the fee.”
“I didn’t notice, so take the money back.”
*hysterical laughter* “Is this a crank call?”

Yeah, that doesn’t go over so well. There isn’t much difference between that and a site’s TOS. You agreed to it, you’re stuck with it.  And just like credit card agreements, it can be changed at anytime, with all changes taking place retroactively.

Personally? I read ‘em all, have found some fun doozies buried in various agreements, and have refused to sign up for sites or services because of them. Most recently, a line in a beta user agreement required that I “never say anything negative about the site or service.” Add to that the “this agreement exists in perpetuity,” and suddenly I’ve agreed to a gag order. I don’t think so! I was truly amazed people did sign up, but then again, I’m sure they didn’t read that.

2) User Data = You Online. Forever.

I talked about this a lot in one of my entries from she’s geeky, since it’s a big issue I don’t think people understand (and this Facebook mess just proves that).

ONCE YOU PUT SOMETHING ONLINE IT NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER GOES AWAY.

Ok? One more time.

ONCE YOU PUT SOMETHING ONLINE IT NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER GOES AWAY.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve locked your Facebook, if you’ve deleted it, whatever. It’s there. If not somewhere you can find it, then it’s in Google cache, or on the wayback machine, in your friend’s inbox, on flickr, somewhere. Don’t think that if you can’t find it it’s not online – the Wayback Machine, for example, only keeps a small fraction of their archive available online.

Now – this latest Facebook blowup.

The freak out was over the fact that Facebook added some language to their Terms saying they would keep a user’s content and licenses even after the person deleted the profile, and removed some other language about users being able to remove content to invalidate the license.

Hey, guess what people? This is nothing new – Facebook just put it in clear text. With the massively complicated architecture of today’s websites, there are caches and archives all over the place of things you’ve put online. If you delete something, it may no longer be delinked, but don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s gone. It’s probably not.

Should facebook have updated it’s TOS like that? Eh. They should have probably been a bit more subtle in their language, but the fact is, had a blog not pointed out what the changes meant, nobody would have noticed.

Want to read some spooky legalese? Check out Google’s Privacy Policy:

When you access Google services, our servers automatically record information that your browser sends whenever you visit a website. These server logs may include information such as your web request, Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser. Also, in order to protect you from fraud, phishing, and other misconduct, we may collect information about your interaction with our services. Any such information we collect will only be used to detect and prevent fraud or other misconduct.

Know what that means? They track you online, and save that data. The wording is nice and light, but that’s what it means.  That’s scarier to me than thinking that Facebook may keep a record of “25 things about me..” even after I delete my account.

The lesson here is twofold. Just as in real life, don’t sign anything you haven’t read. If you don’t like what you’re reading, don’t use the service. And don’t think your information can ever be taken offline once you’ve put it there. It’s there forever, and even if one website says they’ll protect your information, they can always change their terms of service to say otherwise.

Be smart, be careful, and stuff like this really won’t matter.

Update: Just wanted to add a link to this article, “What Facebook’s Stumble Can Teach Your Company.” I think the opinion expressed in the article is highly idealistic and probably extremely unrealistic, but it’s still a good read.

  • By rondata, February 21, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Like I said, if http://lolhipsters.blogspot.com/ has taught us anything, it’s that *anyone* can take your stuff and do anything they want with it.. and *anyone* probably will :)

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