Facebook’s explanation of its new terms seemed reasonable enough: even after a user quits Facebook, material that user has posted on friends’ walls and other messages the user has sent to others may remain available. Facebook also noted that its perpetual license only allowed the site to use material in accordance with departed users’ privacy settings (presumably at the time of their departure). Under the new terms, therefore, Facebook would still be required to respect albums marked as private–and ensure they stay that way.
Would Facebook actually do any of these things? Probably not. As Zuckerberg pointed out, Facebook “wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want.” Taking this a step further, I think that even if Facebook saw a chance to earn a quick buck or two by selling departed users’ images, such a move would undoubtedly spur user backlash orders of magnitude more severe than anything the site has experienced before. Instead of thousands of users in arms, there’d be millions, and a mass exodus of users would be a very real possibility. Despite Facebook’s awesome success in the social networking arena, there are lots of robust alternatives to Facebook out there that would love nothing more than to provide a home to disaffected Facebook users. Facebook’s execs know all of this, which is why I highly doubt the site would ever commit any of the violations that some have speculated might be possible under the new terms.
Of course, none of these assurances–however comforting they may be–would hold up in court. Even though Facebook probably wouldn’t ever misuse its license to user content, it could under its new terms. That fact alone is unsettling to many users.
The peaceful resolution of the latest Facebook fiasco further hammers home an argument that many of us TLFers have made time and time again: especially on the Web, companies have little choice but to listen to their users, and firms often find that they can’t get away with unsavory practices that might have flown under the radar in another era without spurring user backlash and, worse still, bad PR. As Bob Garfield aptly put it, when disputes between consumers and businesses arise in age of the Internet and the blogosphere, ” the Herd Will Be Heard.”
If Facebook had not relented, there’s a chance government would’ve gotten involved. Yesterday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center had announced it was “readying a complaint” against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission. And even if that complaint hadn’t gone anywhere, chances are some member of Congress would have seen it fit to “investigate” social networking practices and send Facebook a detailed questionnaire about its content licensing policies.
But as the user uprising and Facebook’s quick reaction illustrate, markets are perfectly capable of resolving many kinds of disputes quickly and efficiently. Regulators are the dinosaurs of the digital era. Even if the FTC had acted on EPIC’s planned complaint, any regulatory ruling probably would not have emerged until long after the fiasco had been resolved–either by Facebook relenting, or by users ditching Facebook for a competing social network.
We’ll never know what would have happened had Facebook held firm, but if history is any guide, keeping regulators at bay may well have been a wise move on Facebook’s part.