Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

A false sense of security

Facebook logo reflected in eyeball, Getty
Few members of Facebook have read its terms of service, says Bill

The real danger of social networks is complacency, not cancer, says Bill Thompson

The fuss over Facebook's attempt to modify the contract with its millions of users has died down for the moment, and I haven't noticed any of my friends closing their account or even significantly changing their behaviour in protest despite the widespread coverage.

The problem started in early February when Facebook updated the section on its site which establishes the legal agreement with its users. Like most people who use it I didn't notice the change, and even though Facebook clearly knows who I am and how to contact me I didn't get a message or see a notification in my news feed about it.

This is pretty common practice on the web, where long legal contracts are agreed with a click of a mouse and sites update them at will because they contain a clause saying that you accept the changes if you carry on using the site.

Term paper

Unlike laws passed by Parliament, which have to be properly promulgated to those affected, contracts can evidently be changed without any proper notice.

Bill Thompson
We are storing up trouble as we surf the web, signing up for services, offering our personal details, clicking through on contracts without reading them and generally acting as if nothing can go wrong
Bill Thompson

The changes clarified what happens to things you upload to the site, such as photographs, videos, messages to other people, shared links, comments and so on, and what made people angry was a paragraph of dense legalese that ended up by noting that "The following sections will survive any termination of your use of the Facebook Service" and went in to list things like "prohibited conduct", "gift credits" and "user disputes".

This made little sense, but could be read as saying that Facebook would keep all your material even after you'd deleted your account, and that it could do whatever it liked with it, and this interpretation rapidly spread across the web.

However, it seems more like an attempt by Facebook's legal team to ensure that the sort of things they need to do with material that belongs to other people is fully clear, completely legal and safe from being challenged in court. It certainly does not claim ownership of any of the material, even if it remains on Facebook's servers.

Facebook seems to have been caught out by the complexities of copyright law rather than to have had any malicious intent, and I'm tempted to believe founder Mark Zuckerberg's plaintive expression of innocence in the blog post where it announced that its new ToS were being withdrawn so that it could be reframed.

He pointed out that "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", and then claimed "we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. The trust you place in us as a safe place

to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work".

He has a point. It's true that the damage to Facebook if it violated user expectations would be great, but any argument that privately owned services will be careful because of market pressures has been severely undermined by the current financial crisis, much of which was brought about precisely because banks completely disregarded these constraints.

Depressed young woman, SPL
Research suggests few links between net use, loneliness and health

History lesson

Facebook also has form in this area, so people are willing to judge it more harshly than other social network sites. Many of us still remember its attempt to introduce an element of viral marketing to the site by letting collaborating online retailers post details of what people were buying from them in users' news feeds.

Called Beacon, the system was comprehensively criticised as an ill-considered and privacy-breaching attempt to exploit the user base, and quickly withdrawn.

But there is still residual suspicion of Facebook's motives, and like many others I think that Mark Zuckerberg is more interested in the latest cool technology and ways to enhance Facebook's value than assumptions about privacy made by its users.

We don't yet know what alternative terms Facebook will come up with, although it is likely that they will be carefully written to appear reasonable while still protecting the company's interests, because that is what they are there for.

We should never forget that Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and all of the other social tools and platforms are commercial ventures, developed and run by businesses that want to make money, even if they currently have no viable commercial model.

They are not public services, they are not provided by the state for all to use on equal terms, and they are under no obligation to work in any particular way.

Facebook still needs to publish its revised terms of service, and they will be carefully scrutinised by some of us. However, it's clear that relatively few users will know or care what is in the contract, and they will probably happily continue using the site whatever was written because it has become so useful for them.

Last week the Daily Mail published a report about the potential negative impact of social network sites with the unforgettable headline "How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer".

The story was clearly ridiculous, an exaggerated claim based on unfounded speculation in an article that science writer Ben Goldacre comprehensively demolished on his Bad Science blog, but it was a useful demonstration of how social sites have entered the mainstream consciousness. Even people who don't use Facebook or Twitter know what they are.

But the lack of any real concern over whether or not Facebook owns user content, or what happens when you try to delete an account, shows that the real danger of social network sites is not cancer, whatever the Daily Mail may say, but complacency.

We are storing up trouble as we surf the web, signing up for services, offering our personal details, clicking through on contracts without reading them and generally acting as if nothing can go wrong, and we may find that the long term impact is far more significant than social isolation.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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