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Council of Better Business Bureaus
Social networking -- connection to friends or world wide exposure of personal information?
February 26, 2010

While vacationing at Cape Cod a week or so ago I heard on the local public radio station about how a John Kerry event in Nantucket resulted in pictures of Kerry and several young women drinking.  I have no idea what the context was, but what struck me was the commentator’s understanding that these photos got into circulation because one of the women posted them on Facebook and that Facebook’s terms of use allowed it to sell posted information to whomever it pleased. So, the story seemed to suggest, Facebook could have sold the photos to a gossip web site.

That seemed surprising to me so I checked.  Indeed, Facebook’s terms of use, linked to at the bottom of its home page, does in fact grant Facebook a world wide license to use posted material any way it wants to—including selling it. Here is what the legal mumbo jumbo says:

    “By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.”
Now, how many of the millions of Facebook’s users know this? Do they think they are communicating with their network of friends and friend’s friends, which granted may be a pretty large group, or do they understand that unlike the Las Vegas cliché, what is said or displayed on Facebook doesn’t stay in Facebook?

By the way, I checked Facebook’s privacy policy – candidly, it is not clear to me whether users can restrict the broad rights to distribute set out in the terms of use or not.

The benefits of connectivity and interaction from social networking venues are evident – but shouldn’t we all start taking a serious look at the risks and weigh them against the benefits when we post?  Shouldn’t the social networking sites do a better job of explaining prominently their policies and the reasons for them?   And shouldn’t users get more choice in how their information is used? Shouldn’t these sites take leadership roles in the ongoing privacy debates regarding web and other digital content?

I think so.