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After mounting pressure from users and consumer advocacy groups, the social networking site Facebook has reversed changes to its Terms of Service. The controversy started when the company unilaterally changed the Terms of Service and granted itself a perpetual license to user content, not only while the user has a membership, but even after the user leaves the site. Some people have observed that Facebook is trying to monetize the vast amount of consumer data that users generate on the Facebook network. Analyst Jeffrey Lindsay suspects that Facebook is quickly burning through its initial funding and is realizing it needs a new business model.
Whatever the reason for Facebook’s actions, it’s clear that Facebook users have very strong feelings about the use of their personal data. As of Wednesday, a Facebook group created to voice opposition to the changes had more than 88,000 members. Much of the controversy centered around the question of whether Facebook could legally change the Terms of Service unilaterally without notifying users of the change. Attorney Maxwell S. Kennerly opined that a recent Ninth Circuit case would likely be applied to prevent Facebook from enforcing their new terms against a user unless that user has assented to them. However, Kennerly was quick to point out that continued use may constitute assent.
Judging from Facebook’s recent reversion to an older version of its Terms of Service, we may not ever know the answer to this question. However, in a message to Facebook users, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that the reversion is only temporary and there will eventually be “a substantial revision from where we are now.” If Facebook’s “substantial revision” contains the same substance and is done in the same manner as the recent revision, we will surely hear more discussion regarding privacy rights, unconscionability, and other important legal issues. Hopefully, Facebook has learned its lesson and will come up with a solution that balances the company’s business needs with the legal rights of its users.
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