Facebook’s about-face on terms of use

Facebook was smart to go back to its previous terms of use while it conducts this terms-of-use-updating experiment in a spotlighted Petrie dish in what seems like the middle of Mumbai's Victoria Station at rush hour (see CEO Mark Zuckerberg's "Update on Terms"). And this is indeed a giant (global) societal experiment, as we the people (the content producers and distributors) and they the companies (the content co-distributors and hosts) – not to mention policymakers and other overseers and observers – figure out who is responsible and to what degree for protecting the content producer, aka user. Because the social Web is largely a user-produced and user-controlled medium, clearly (to me, anyway) the responsibility is shared. Educating users about that is a challenge all by itself, witness the general lack of close attention to privacy options (see "10 privacy settings every Facebook user should know"), but factor in developing teenage brains learning impulse control and shared responsibility at the same time, and the user-protection challenge grows significantly (see PBS Frontline's "The Teenage Brain").

I said Facebook's smart in my lead up there because, in going back to its previous terms-of-use version, it's buying time for the process of folding user input into the new terms' development process and this giant experiment is also about user (and societal) education. It needs time. There are factors involved that only a few of the privacy bloggers are writing about (e.g., author Daniel Solove), including the tension between consumer privacy pressures and those from law enforcement to hand over as well as retain user data after users have closed their accounts. But time is short, too. Though this social and media experiment – and consensus-building in general – take time, Facebook doesn't have a whole lot, given the climate outside the Petrie dish. The predator panic recently brought into perspective by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force is a good illustration of how worst-case scenarios and fears tend to eclipse the public discussion about the social Web – to the detriment of child safety (see the New York Times and my post on that). Why to the detriment? Because kids usually want to get far away from scared, worked-up parents; they go "underground" online, where parents aren't in the mix. Never the best scenario. [Thanks to UK-based privacy researcher Tara Taubman for pointing out a few of the links below.]

Here are other reports and commentaries worth reading:

* Audio interview with both Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly by CNET/CBS tech analyst Larry Magid (Larry is also my co-director here at ConnectSafely.org)
* A lawyer's view on Facebook's 180 and how enforceable terms of use are anyway (Maxwell S. Kennerly in Philadelphia)
* University of Wisconsin information studies Prof. Michael Zimmer's very critical view of Facebook's process
* Internet consultant and blogger David Silversmith on the technical and monetary realities and then "plain old reality"
* The Guardian on how people definitely do read the "fine print" in social sites (vs. grocery store loyalty cards)
* Coverage at the Washington Post and New York Times
* The Internet Safety Technical Task Force report

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