Are Facebook's outraged users getting a wake-up call?

Facebook backs off TOS changes but analysts hope lesson is: Think before you post

After outraged users hammered Facebook Inc. for changing its terms-of-use policy to seemingly give the company vast control over users' content, analysts are wondering if the brouhaha will serve as the long-awaited wake-up call for people to think before they post.

"This just reflects the ongoing process of people trying to figure out the Internet," said John Byrne, a senior analyst at Technology Business Research Inc. "The lesson that should be learned is that these content sites are not your own personal diaries. Consider it more as publishing and less about your personal circle of friends. People need to wake up."

Early Wednesday morning, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a blog telling users that the site is returning to its previous terms of service after upset users users complained about changes unveiled earlier this month. Those changes, announced in a blog post on Feb. 4, enabled Facebook to maintain broad control and archive data that users had deleted. Under the previous terms of use, Facebook was not granted any rights to deleted material.

Facebook, which announced last month it had hit a milestone of 150 million users, maintained earlier this week that users must agree to a license in order for the site to share their data with other people. That user agreement granted Facebook the right to use their content in a wide variety of ways.

The changes announced today removed two sentences reading: "You may remove your user content from the site at any time. If you choose to remove your user content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however, you acknowledge that the company may retain archived copies of your user content."

Many users had voiced concerns about Facebook giving itself the right to use content long deleted from someone's online profile. Could comments, written with little thought, come back to haunt someone years after they were written? Could photos of drunken college parties resurface long after they were forgotten?

Those fears led to a question over who controls the content -- the user or the site.

To nail down an answer, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy watchdog group, said on Tuesday it was preparing to file a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over the social network's updated licenses.

Zuckerberg said in his blog post today that Facebook execs will take several weeks to come up with a new policy and to hash out the best language to explain it. "Our next version will be a substantial revision from where we are now," he wrote. "It will reflect the principles I described yesterday around how people share and control their information, and it will be written clearly in language everyone can understand. Since this will be the governing document that we'll all live by, Facebook users will have a lot of input in crafting these terms."

Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said reverting to the old terms-of-use policy was a smart move, but he added that the outcry that arose this week over the changes shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.

"People are very protective of this kind of stuff and paranoid about how it might be used," added Olds. "Facebook grossly underestimated people's feeling of ownership over their various posts and pictures, and they also underestimated people's belief that someone wants to exploit their data. Facebook needs to realize that they are very large now and need to step lightly and make more subtle moves to avoid huge hassles like this."

Byrne said he hopes that the incident is a strong reminder that people need to be wary about what they post on social networking sites.

"You're publishing like you would in a newspaper or a book," he noted. "Facebook is using the same kind of concept. Instead of a letter to the editor, it's a picture of three college students drinking out of a funnel. People are crazy if they don't think there are long-term repercussions.... I wouldn't put anything up that would raise eyebrows with my friends, my employer or my clients."

He added that simply because people are sharing information with their friends, they tend to forget the bigger picture.

"The fact that there was such an outcry means people had not thought through their privacy concerns," said Byrne. "Now they're looking at this and realizing it's not just about their content and friends but there's a company behind this that wants to make money."

Jeremy Kirk of the IDG News Service contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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