Give Facebook credit for quickly reversing itself on the insane changes it recently made to its terms of service policy. Hopefully the company has finally learned its lesson about not arbitrarily making policy changes in a vacuum.
I’ll admit I wasn’t following the story closely until I got a call from journalist David Needle yesterday asking for comment. I wasn’t online at the time, and when David described the new terms of service I said they were crazy. No online community would impose a policy that effectively gave it the right to steal intellectual property from its members.
So I was stunned when I returned to my office and actually looked at the terms. I’m not a lawyer, but it was pretty easy to figure out what Facebook was doing. In essence, anything a member posted on Facebook became the property of Facebook, which could use that content in any way it wanted, including changing it, combining with other content and even selling it.
This had personal relevance to me, because many authors and artists now develop their work in public forums, post it online and ask for input from their audience. Under the revised Facebook policy, someone doing this would give up ownership of that intellectual property the minute it appeared on the site.
I don’t think for a moment that Facebook intended to abuse the terms of service or to steal anything from anyone. This was a boneheaded decision by someone who thought that since the terms were being changed anyway, Facebook might as well ask for the sun, moon and stars.
Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to explain the policy made no sense. While his blog entry did a good job of clarifying Facebook’s intent, it didn’t explain why such heavy-handed language was needed, nor did it express any second thoughts about the changes.
This is the second time Facebook has had to withdraw a feature change amid heavy criticism. Last year it was the ill-considered Beacon social shopping service. The company has created a bill of rights and responsibilities group and asked people to contribute their thoughts.. Let’s hope it listens this time.