Are Changes to the Facebook Terms of Service Much Ado About Nothing?

NEWS ANALYSIS: Changes to the Facebook social networking site's terms of service ignite a controversy as users wonder who owns their content.

Facebook users have been all a-twitter the past couple of days about a change in the social network's terms of service.

Facebook recently reorganized its TOS and, in doing so, changed some information pertaining to who owns the information posted on Facebook after a user terminates his or her account.

The blog The Consumerist delved deep into the new language. In a Feb. 15 post provocatively titled "Facebook's New Terms of Service: We Can Do Anything We Want with Your Content Forever," The Consumerist's Chris Walters said:

"Facebook's terms of service (TOS) used to say that when you closed an account on their network, any rights they claimed to the original content you uploaded would expire. Not anymore.Now, anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later. Want to close your account? Good for you, but Facebook still has the right to do whatever it wants with your old content. They can even sublicense it if they want."

The post ignited a firestorm among the blogging community, copyright experts and privacy advocates, as well as professional writers and photographers who had loaded their content to the site for promotion. It likely also caused alarm among people who had perhaps too blithely agreed to the TOS when they signed up for Facebook and wondered what it meant for a service to own their personal photos and status updates.

In fact, several Facebook groups formed protests, including one that urged users to change their profile pics to a black box that read "This is in protest to Facebook's terms of service."

The Consumerist has posted several updates to its original report, including one that includes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's response to the controversy.

The note, which Zuckerberg posted on Feb. 16, reads in part:

"A couple of weeks ago, we updated our terms of use to clarify a few points for our users. A number of people have raised questions about our changes, so I'd like to address those here. I'll also take the opportunity to explain how we think about people's information.Our philosophy is that people own their information and control who they share it with. When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they've asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn't help people share that information."

On the question of how long this applies, Zuckerberg pointed out that the nature of a social network makes it challenging for the site to completely control your information because it is being shared among your Facebook friends. "One of the questions about our new terms of use is whether Facebook can use this information forever," Zuckerberg said in his post. "When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created-one in the person's sent messages box and the other in their friend's in-box. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like e-mail work. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this [clearer]."