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Outside Editorial: Facebook uprising

Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thousands of Facebook users threatened to un-friend the entire website last week to protest what one consumer guardian called "a digital rights grab."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and 25 other groups were poised to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over revisions to the site's contract with users when Facebook retracted the changes, saying it was all a misunderstanding. It's now safe to resume uploading those photos from last weekend's Coed Strip Beer Pong Tournament, or at least as safe as it ever was.

A few weeks ago, Facebook quietly changed the fine print, deleting some language about removal of content by users and adding a clause about retaining it after an account is closed. It took a while for anyone to get around to scrutinizing the new wording, but eventually the Consumerist blog - run by the same group that publishes Consumer Reports - got ahold of it. Its take: "Anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later."

Well, yikes.

Facebook insisted it wasn't trying to assert ownership of data, which is still subject to individual users' privacy settings. Among other things, the changes were meant to clarify that closing an account doesn't necessarily remove everything the user ever posted. Notes written on another user's "wall," for example, would not magically disappear. To quiet the backlash, though, Facebook agreed to go back to the original wording and invited users to help write a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to govern privacy issues.

It was encouraging to witness a victory for consumer vigilance because that's the way many of the rules are being written in the evolving sphere of electronic communication. But we couldn't help but be amused that so many people were alarmed by the real-or-imagined breach of their online privacy, and we're not just talking about Facebook.

You don't have to be promiscuous about social networking to embarrass yourself online. Go ahead: Google your friends, your co-workers, yourself. If you cringe at the mug shot that accompanied your bio on the Class of 1988 20th reunion program, just be grateful you aren't half-naked and balancing a beer on your head in that photo, especially if you're in the middle of a job search.

An errant e-mail or a surreptitiously snapped photo - hello, Michael Phelps - can rocket around the world, accidentally or on purpose, in the time it takes to press "send." Nude photos and credit-card numbers have a way of escaping into cyberspace despite rigorous safeguards, which is why we shake our heads when we see some of the stuff people deliberately share with "friends" they haven't met. Don't kid yourselves about privacy, Websters. There's no telling what will come back to bite you in the keister.

In its post about Facebook, the Consumerist warned: "Never upload anything you don't feel comfortable giving away forever, because it's Facebook's now." What it ought to say is, never upload anything you don't feel comfortable giving away forever, period.



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