Just trust us.
That's what Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the estimated 175 million users of his social-networking Web site Monday afternoon after the company had stepped into yet another bad-publicity mess of its own creation.
Basically, Zuckerberg told Facebook devotees that he'd never, ever do anything bad with their posted content — even though the user agreement says he's perfectly entitled to do so.
"The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work," he wrote in a reassuring-sounding message on the official Facebook blog. "Our goal is to build great products and to communicate clearly to help people share more information in this trusted environment."
Still, that doesn't change the fact that Facebook's Terms of Service — the long legal document all users must agree to before they can sign up — grants the company "an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or ... (ii) enable a user to Post."
Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users read that scary passage for the first time after the consumer-interest blog Consumerist.com lit up a sleepy holiday weekend on Sunday evening with a posting entitled "Facebook's New Terms Of Service: 'We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.'"
Consumerist's posting was prompted by Facebook's quiet tweaking of its Terms of Service on Feb. 4, which extended that license, which it had long assumed, into perpetuity even if a user terminated his or her Facebook account.
But the posting got more than 450,000 hits because people suddenly realized that they'd already handed over usage rights to every message, photo and music file they'd ever put on Facebook to Mark Zuckerberg.
"Now they can print and sell posters of the pictures you took, turn your posts into advertising jingles, whatever. Make a million bucks, and keep it all," wrote Consumerist commenter LandruBek. "Imagine a fun line of Facebook postcards, or a coffee table book, 'The Faces of Facebook.' They can do this, and Facebook members themselves won't see a dime, because they gave away a license to do so."
Zuckerberg's response was calm, even nurturing and caring.
"Our philosophy is that people own their information and control who they share it with," he wrote. "When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they've asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn't help people share that information."
And he put forward a persuasive argument about why the license needed to be extended beyond the termination of a user account:
"When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created — one in the person's sent messages box and the other in their friend's inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message. We think this is the right way for Facebook to work, and it is consistent with how other services like email work. One of the reasons we updated our terms was to make this more clear."
Some Internet commentators weren't buying it.
"The e-mail example has a major hole in it," scoffed David Sarno in a blog posting on the Los Angeles Times Web site. "Facebook users generally do not 'send' other types of content to one another, including photographs. Rather, they post them on their own profiles for others to stop by and see. There's no obvious reason that Facebook would need to perpetually store multiple copies of photographs — because, as far as the user is concerned, they appear only in one place."
"It is difficult to trust a company that is stripping users of rights they've become accustomed to," wrote Erick Schonfeld on the TechCrunch blog. "If I upload a picture which I later regret uploading, why shouldn't I be able to erase it from Facebook forever, even if some of my friends have already seen it?"
Facebook users naturally set up several groups protesting the changes to the Terms of Service — one called "People Against the new Terms of Service" had signed up 31,000 members by Tuesday afternoon.
Linked from that page was a helpful entry by blogger Amanda L. French, who compared the Terms of Service of Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Picasa and YouTube.
"Conclusion? Go ahead and be outraged," she wrote, pointing out that the other sites gave themselves far less leeway in repurposing user material. "Facebook's claims to your content are extraordinarily grabby and arrogant."
Some old tech-biz hands thought the kerfluffle was much ado about not much.
"It is common language in every website because their cut-throat lawyer says you need to cover yourself," privacy expert Jules Polonetsky told Agence France-Presse. "This doesn't mean that Facebook can make a mini-series on your life or write a book about you, but they might be able to create a feed that lets your friends on Twitter know what you're doing. Folks should just calm down."
"My guess is this isn't a content-grabbing move by Facebook," wrote veteran tech journalist Paul Boutin in the Industry Standard. "It's overzealous legalese meant to protect the company against copyright claims if Facebook uses content that has since been removed by a member. ... I predict the old clause will be restored by Wednesday."
Still, this isn't the first time Facebook has made its own mess.
In November 2007, a misguided attempt to make some money by targeting ads at users resulted in the "Beacon" controversy, named after the feature Facebook introduced without telling anyone.
Beacon partnered Facebook with several third-party retailers who tracked users' credit-card use. But users were angry that their purchasing habits were suddenly being broadcast to everyone in their extended networks.
A month later, Facebook tweaked Beacon's settings so that they had to opt into it rather than being automatically enrolled — a move it probably should have made in the first place.
Some commenters this week wondered why Facebook hadn't learned from the earlier flap.
"You'd think one of the biggest social media companies in the world — one that's dealt with outrage over privacy issues before — would have taken steps to avoid a publicity stink bomb like this," said the L.A. Times' Sarno.