Following the recent debacle in which Facebook freaked out a large percentage of its user base with a clumsily-handled change to its Terms of Service, I was surprised when this showed up on my FB home page today:
Today we announced new opportunities for users to play a meaningful role in determining the policies governing our site. We released the first proposals subject to these procedures – The Facebook Principles, a set of values that will guide the development of the service, and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities that governs Facebook’s operations. Users will have the opportunity to review, comment and vote on these documents over the coming weeks and, if they are approved, other future policy changes. We’ve posted the documents in separate groups and invite you to offer comments and suggestions. For more information and links to the two groups, check out the Facebook Blog.
The wording of the last TOS update seemed to include Facebook taking ownership of users’ uploaded or posted material, which was the source of the uproar. My own take on it was that Facebook had no intent of actually claiming ownership, but that its legal counsel was making the claim out of a sense that it would protect them from being sued for being a conduit for misuse. For example, if you upload a picture of yourself, and someone at an ad agency then copies it and uses it in an ad on the side of bus, you might sue the ad agency. But you might also sue Facebook, because they provided the mechanism by which the picture was used without your permission. Facebook’s lawyers recognize that if you surrender the ownership of the picture when you upload it, then you can’t sue Facebook for what the ad agency does. I predicted that these sorts of Terms of Service (which are very common, and people agree to every day without batting an eye) would someday be challenged in a class action lawsuit, forcing lawyers to find more subtle ways to protect their companies.
I might have been wrong.
With the new transparent approach Facebook claims to be taking to rewriting the Terms of Service, it’s possible that the human element actually will be factored into the legal element this time. And if it works, it could become a model for how other companies that rely on the goodwill of their users do business.