Social networking site can use all material even after you've taken profile down
David Sturgill has posted his cell phone number, personal e-mail address and work information on his Facebook page and now wonders whether that was a good idea.
Facebook quietly changed the terms this month but users became aware of it -- and some outraged by it -- when the popular Consumerist blog posted about it this week and got tens of thousands of hits.
The change allows Facebook to keep user content such as photos and phone numbers even if members delete their accounts. Under the old terms, the license expired when users left Facebook.
"I don't think it's right at all," said Sturgill. "That's all my personal information. If I wanted to end my agreement with them, it should be deleted."
Facebook will not own the information, contrary to Web rumors, but the change could still have broad implications, said Mark McCreary, an intellectual property attorney at the law firm Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia. For example, a photographer who stops using Facebook still owns his photos, but he's given license to the site to use them after he goes on to become famous.
"Selling a photograph would appear to be outside of the permitted 'promotion' use in the terms of service," McCreary said. "Using the photo for an ad or promotion clearly appears to be permitted."
The change on Feb. 4 has spurred an uproar among Facebook users, leading to calls for boycotts and prompting the company's chief executive officer to post a notice that stated, "We wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want." But that has not quelled criticism of the five-year-old site, which has more than 150 million users worldwide.
Ryan O'Connor, a Lutherville resident who works at Constellation Energy, said he grew concerned about the security of his information and removed his cell phone number and e-mail address earlier this month. After learning that Facebook still has the information archived, he said he considered deleting his profile altogether.
"It's kind of like Big Brother," said O'Connor, 30. "I feel like I'm violated a little bit. That's concerning. ... Why would they keep the information? What's the point? There has to be an objective there."
The objective, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says in a note to users, is continuity. When users share their information on the site, they retain a copy and others retain copies, based on the user's privacy settings. When the user deletes the information, the other users keep their copies because they "want to be able to bring the information others have shared with them - like e-mail addresses, phone numbers, photos and so on - to other services and grant those services access to those people's information."
The change in terms, he said, was probably made in the name of simplicity. If Facebook has an eternal license to the information, it doesn't have to continuously update the various places data are stored, with friends or outside businesses with which Facebook shares aggregate information.
Users who are upset can leave Facebook, but there may be little point. The company already has the information.
Privacy advocates have long called for more consumer protections and warned Internet users not to post pictures or personal information that in many cases could be seen in perpetuity by just about anyone -- future employers, parents and criminals.
But this move by Facebook seems to have pushed some users too far.
On Monday morning, Julius Harper, a 25-year-old Facebook user who lives in Los Angeles, co-founded a group called People Against the New Terms of Service (TOS). It sparked an immediate response: More than 30,000 users joined in less than 24 hours.
"When I first started my group, I had four people I knew personally," he said. "I went to Wal-Mart, came back and all the sudden thousands and thousands of people were saying, 'This is bull crap.' It ballooned out of control from there."
On Monday night, a representative from Facebook contacted Harper and offered to answer questions.
But what Harper wants is to see the new policy scaled back to keep user content limited to individuals and their friends. Anything more is unacceptable, he said.
"It's a land-grab of rights and intellectual property from everybody who uses the service," Harper said. "I could find my face on the side of a bus one day with an ad that says, 'Hey, join Facebook,' and there would be nothing I could do about it."
Legally, that's probably true, said Ned T. Himmelrich, who heads Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander LLC's Intellectual Property/Technology Group in Baltimore.
Facebook tells users on its site that the company may change its terms and not notify them directly. By continuing to use the site, users agree.
Those who stopped using the social networking site before the Feb. 4 change and find that their information has been used by Facebook might have a case against the site, he said.
"If you agreed to the old terms and didn't like the way information was handled and don't participate anymore, you have not consented to the new terms," he said. "For those still using Facebook, they have blanket consent."
By Meredith Cohn and Sam Sessa