Facebook backpedals in face of user outrage

The Baltimore Sun

Facebook Inc.'s latest capitulation to offended users offered another reminder of the social network's power for self-criticism.

The Palo Alto, Calif., company rescinded a controversial change to its terms of use late Tuesday after thousands of members protested that Facebook was claiming ownership of all photos and other material posted to the site.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said that wasn't the intention. But Facebook reverted to a previous version of its legal user guidelines that didn't include the disputed clause. He said the company would work to revise the policies, which Facebook calls its "governing document," with feedback from its 175 million users.

"Given its importance, we need to make sure the terms reflect the principles and values of the people using the service," Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook's corporate blog. "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."

The company is no stranger to controversy. It has faced strong user backlash to features including Beacon, its advertising service, and News Feed, its system for tracking and broadcasting users' moves to their online friends.

In this case, users weren't content to hand Facebook the rights to their personal data. They also were unsatisfied by a Zuckerberg blog post Monday that many thought amounted to "just trust us."

Users carried out their protests on the Web site, using the tools Facebook provides for posting blog entries and rallying around causes.

Zuckerberg has compared the Web site to a nation, saying that its user base would make Facebook the world's sixth-most-populous country.

This week's dissent was akin to that of a political protest. But Facebook took the state analogy to a new level, creating an online group called the Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that it's using to collect suggestions from users. When they logged in late Tuesday and yesterday, each Facebook member was alerted to the changes and directed to the group page.

"Facebook doesn't claim rights to any of your photos or other content," the page says. "We need a license in order to help you share information with your friends, but we don't claim to own your information."

Now, Facebook is going back to the drawing board to craft a less divisive set of terms of service. The company will put together a more approachable document with less formal language, Zuckerberg wrote on the blog.

It remains to be seen how many of the suggestions actually factor into the new terms of service.

"There is a kind of deceptiveness to the way this thing happened and the way it was pulled back," said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard University. "People will have legitimate suspicions until they see the result."

The Consumerist, a blog run by the watchdog group Consumers Union, revealed the initial change to the terms Sunday, after it got an e-mailed tip from a reader. Chris Walters, the writer of that blog post, applauded the decision to listen to user input.

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