Hey Facebook - where's the respect?
It's fairly difficult to muster up sympathy for Facebook's management when it comes to the current user revolt over changes to the site's terms and conditions of use (or T&Cs as they are commonly know). After all we've seen it all before, anyone remember lefty singer songwriter Billy Bragg's 2006 MySpace Revolution? Putting aside the irony that it's likely that the MySpace revolution is the only one that Billy Bragg will ever lead, the 2006 Revolt was a blueprint for Facebook's 2009 controversy.
Back in 2006 MySpace changed its T&Cs to provide for an ongoing license to any content posted on the service as they saw fit, fast forward to 2009 and Facebook has done substantially the same thing. Back in 2006 an activist user revolt lead by Bragg forced a turnaround from MySpace, fast forward to 2009 and (absent Billy Bragg) Facebook has done exactly the same thing.
So, what were they thinking at Facebook? Why would a massively successful site show such a disrespect for its users?
While people may put up with the most draconian clauses drafted into the T&Cs for Windows Vista or Adobe Acrobat, generally because they never read them and they couldn't change them if they wanted to, when it comes to online media and the Web things are different. Facebook users should be concerned about the T&Cs, they constitute the terms of the contract between Facebook and its users and is a legally binding document. In an ideal world contracts for services should be negotiated between the parties, in the case of most Web sites and software companies that rarely happens, but this time the users have struck back and are now appear to be collectively negotiating that contract through online activism.
The drafting of Terms and Conditions for Web sites is a tricky business, lawyers must weigh up the potential risks of litigation against the possibility that the terms and conditions will sufficiently turn off users from using the site. When it comes to social media sites there is another significant concern – that users will revolt, start discussion groups, stop posting photos of their cats, and make statements to the media that generate poor publicity for the site.
Lawyers for social media sites need to have a nuanced understanding of the site's fundamental business and pay attention to risks that might impact the business both inside and outside the courtroom.
Given that Facebook would have been well aware of the MySpace case, a cynical observer might suggest that the manner in which Facebook clearly highlighted the changes to the T&C showed that Facebook's management was well aware of the possibility of a user revolt and that their subsequent response would have been mapped out in advance. Facebook's subsequent response to revert back to the previous T&C an to enter into a process of consultation
Users have good reason to be worried about large corporations infringing on their IP rights or privacy. How many users would want to be featured in a Facebook tie up with US Magazine of top ten of "Facebook Funniest Drunken Party Photos" or see their "25 Random Things About Me" reprinted without permission or compensation in an
"Official Facebook 25 Things" book?
Given the dominance of Facebook in the social media world it seems unlikely that this hiccup will only result in the cancellation of a tiny number of hardcore users while at the same time continuing to generate headlines and page views for the site. Facebook and other social media sites need to establish exactly how far they can go when
it comes to the user generated content that drives their world and ensure that lawyers don't kill the golden goose by overreaching and draconian T&Cs. Ultimately Facebook needs to understand that when it comes to user generated content people do actually care and show some respect.