While most Americans were getting ready to stuff their faces and spend billions of dollars, Facebook quietly announced it was thinking of changing its terms of service. What followed was a rash of FB angst the likes of which hasn't been seen since, well, June.
On Wednesday, Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications, public policy and marketing for Facebook, posted a message about Proposed Updates to our Governing Documents, in which he noted that the company was "proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement," and encouraged users to review the possible changes to the site's terms of service.
Somehow, thousands of people got it in their heads that these changes were an assault on their copyrights, and in response, many people posted over the holiday weekend something along the lines of:
In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention).
For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!
"It's pretty clear this little notice is really not necessary… there is no such thing as the Berner convention," says Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with a laugh. "There's the Berne Convention.
"It doesn’t appear to me that they're changing anything to do with copyright, whatsoever. What they're proposing to change is the voting system that they have in place. As far as I can tell, none of the changes have anything to do with copyright whatsoever."
The FB posts in response to Schrage's message were eerily similar to ones that surfaced in June, when FB's new terms of service included the phrase, "You give us permission to use your name and profile picture."
The idea that you could unilaterally and retroactively change the terms of service is wishful thinking. The debunkers at Snopes jumped on this topic in May, and Hoax-Slayer took a stab at in June, with both sites revising their posts in response to this latest holiday surge.
"There's no point in doing it," said McSherry.
Andrew Noyes, Facebook's manager of public policy communications, puts out fires like this all the time, and like most of us, he probably wishes he had less to do.
"As outlined in our terms, the people who use Facebook own all of the content and information they post on Facebook, and they can control how it is shared through their privacy and application settings," wrote Noyes in an email. "Over the last few years, we have noticed some statements that suggest otherwise and we wanted to take a moment to remind you of the facts – when you post things like photos to Facebook, we do not own them."
Though McSherry concedes that the panic over the terms of service changes is overblown, she notes that Facebook is partly to blame.
"They sent out this notice in the dead of night, right before Thanksgiving, and guess what -- it kind of freaked people out," she said. "They've got millions of users and some of those users are going to wonder why they're getting a notice of changes to policy under those circumstances. So I do think that Facebook needs to be a little bit more proactive in giving folks real notice in a way that isn’t scary, and doesn’t lead people to think that their rights are being taken away."
McSherry understands the desire to protect yourself, and agrees the instinct is sound. But if people really want to protect their rights, they need to do so in a more constructive way, either by letting the company know directly, or leaving Face-space altogether. Nonetheless, McSherry sees in this mess an important lesson for Facebook.
"It reflects that folks don’t trust Facebook," she said, "and that's a problem that Facebook is going to have to deal with."