Daily Archives: February 16, 2009

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

It’d been a while since there was a good Facebook controversy, but there was plenty of chatter on the Twitters in response to a Consumerist article that brought a revision to the Facebook TOS to the forefront. I’m not going to rehash the intimate details here, but here’s the gist: When you upload something to Facebook, you give them a license to use it in a lot of different ways. Previously, the license would expire if you terminate your account; this revision removes that expiration-upon-termination provision. So, there’s uproar. Mark Zuckerberg once again plays firefighter and says that the TOS change was due to the way Facebook stores data; he likens it to e-mail. I personally think that their licensing provisions are way over-reaching and do need some narrowing and further clarification. This point I will not dispute. There are legitimate concerns for anybody who uses Facebook for anything resembling serious business; lots of businesses with Facebook Fan Pages definitely have reason to be skeptical. Even folks like myself who use Facebook as more of an aggregator should still be troubled by these changes, according to Jacobson Attorneys.

Certainly, it’s another round of Facebook Fail because these changes simply need to be communicated more clearly. This is a company that routinely finds itself in damage control mode about once every four months, whether it be design changes, Beacon, or now this TOS change. Certainly we’ve seen that Facebook has not completely learned its lesson in good communications with its user base; this in turn leads to a reputation of being kind of shady (which was really cemented with the Beacon incident). Facebook’s also the poster child for “walled garden” — thus, something like this will (rightfully) raise the ire of folks who care deeply about the ownership over their own data.

So, content creators are left with a tough call: Spend time and money on self-hosting — including the technical requirements, promotional materials, and the time getting content into their own system, or use a platform like Facebook to publish faster, with all the technical handiwork in place, but with the understanding that in return for these services that the content creator is likely to surrender some of their rights and have to play by the service’s rules. The best strategy for a content creator is a hybrid: Use Facebook to draw people to their content hosted off-site.

Why would anybody do anything resembling serious business besides promotion on Facebook directly, anyway? If one is serious about content creation, they always host the good stuff within their own domain, knowing full well that the copyright statement on the bottom reads “Facebook” and not their name. Facebook has been so clear that they use the data submitted to their site in a variety of ways. For example, have you seen Lexicon? It searches an index of Facebook walls to track the frequency of a term throughout the social network. Here’s a hint: They weren’t really interested in investing a lot of time in building a tool that could track how many times someone said “thunder” on a Facebook wall simply for an engineer’s pleasure and amusement. Really, this should come as a surprise to nobody who’s serious about the ownership of their content. Call it a case of blind idealism, but I’d like to think that people who are dead serious about their content do due diligence before they start spreading it in new locations. And if they don’t, maybe this is a call to bring some of that practice back? Tough to say. There’s a lesson to be learned here, though: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s all give and take; for the convenience and access to the vast Facebook network, there’s a sacrifice involved. Do I like the level of sacrifice? I’m not a fan of it, and I suspect most businesses won’t be, either. But that’s how it is on any service, not just Facebook. These issues have to be considered carefully in this cloud computing boom time.

To their credit, Facebook is taking feedback about the changes. They don’t have to do this, but they are, and that’s a sign that they’re at the very least trying to listen and allay concerns. It’s a good PR move — now, the question is, will they follow through? On issues of privacy and openness, history’s shown that they have been extremely attentive to concerns and acted on them. I have a feeling the TOS will see another tweak before it’s over — stay tuned.

Update: Here’s an absolutely damning comparison of Facebook’s TOS versus Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter. (Hat tip to @mashable.)