Red Face…book

17 Jan

Originally posted 19 February 2009 @

For any of you doubting the power of the interweb as a media channel, since the story of Facebook changing their terms of use was first reported by the Consumerist blog on Feb 15, it has been one of the most talked about issues across the world: “Facebook Privacy Fallout Goes Nuclear” The key thing I take from all this, is that it represents tangible proof that at least one person in the world reads the terms and conditions. Pretty much all of us suspect EULAs (electronic user licence agreements) or ‘click wrap’ as they’re otherwise known, are chock-a-block with weird and wonderful legal weasel words but that doesn’t mean we read them before clicking or ticking the “I have read the terms and conditions…” box, so clearly we’re not that bothered by it.

In a nutshell, the big change to the Facebook terms of use grants them the right to hang on to (and potentially “use”) archived copies of your stuff if you cancel your membership on the site. This “use” is defined in numerous ways in the fine print but one of the terms that seem to have the world’s collective panties in a bunch is “sublicence”: effectively Facebook can sell your content to a third party.

So what’s all the fuss about suddenly? Facebook can already sell your stuff right now if they want to…you gave them permission to do so when you signed up. The word “sublicence” appears in the old terms of use (hands up how many of you read it); the only real difference in the new version is that right exists after you leave. What I think annoys people is the idea that someone is able to make money off something they “own” which possesses no obvious commercial value, or which they lack the ability to monetize themselves. Frankly, the majority of us have little to worry about. The bulk of user content on Facebook is photos, and bad ones at that. I don’t want to see pictures of a hairy Irish guy in a PVC nurse outfit let alone PAY for the privelage (I’ll mention no names so their dignity remains intact).

Perhaps it comes down to a definition of ownership. Facebook have stated that they have never claimed ownershipof their members’ content, but when you put your “property” into a big communal bucket you’re pretty much giving it away to the world and are clearly not seeking to make any money out of it, so why does that change if you’re no longer a member of the site? Once it’s out there it’s out there. In the words of Joe Garrelli from NewsRadio: “Getting something off the internet is like getting pee out of a pool.”

Other social networking sites have found ways to make money from user content, such as Flickr (where users’ photos can be sold to third parties and the user receives a royalty), and Threadless (essentially an enormous t-shirt design competition where artitsts submit their designs for the community to vote for and, ultimately, buy). Neither of these sites actually create anything, they merely provide the mechanism for users to submit and interact, and cream a percentage off the top. They have tapped into an enormous global market which effictively comes to them with little or no effort on their behalf. Both potentially make a lot of money, sure, but they are fostering and rewarding the creativity of people who ordinarily would have no means to commercialise their work.

Update: Facebook have reverted back to their old terms of use while they “resolve the issues that people have raised”: Facebook backtracks.


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