Facebook Democratizes Its Terms of Service

Facebook is doing something unheard of, announcing at a press conference on Thursday that it is giving its users the right to weigh in on changes to its policies and Terms of Service (ToS), in effect creating what some have called a virtual "Bill of Rights."

You probably remember the massive explosion that happened when Facebook modified its Terms of Service (ToS) such that it implied Facebook owned all your content, forever. They eventually backed down, reverting to the prior ToS, but the damage was done.

Out of that fiasco has come a new initiative, though, one never before seen. In their press release, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook said:
"As people share more information on services like Facebook, a new relationship is created between Internet companies and the people they serve. The past week reminded us that users feel a real sense of ownership over Facebook itself, not just the information they share. "Companies like ours need to develop new models of governance. Rather than simply reissue a new Terms of Use, the changes we’re announcing today are designed to open up Facebook so that users can participate meaningfully in our policies and our future."
Nicely, Facebook even had a privacy advocate chime in on their press release. In fact, no less than Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International.
"This is an unprecedented action. No other company has made such a bold move towards transparency and democratization. The devil will be in the detail but, overall, we applaud these positive steps and think they foreshadow the future of web 2.0. We hope Facebook will realize these extraordinary commitments through concrete action and we challenge the rest of the industry to exceed them."
Here is the list of the Proposed Facebook Principles:

1. Freedom to Share and Connect

People should have the freedom to share whatever information they want, in any medium and any format, and have the right to connect online with anyone – any person, organization or service – as long as they both consent to the connection.

2. Ownership and Control of Information

People should own their information. They should have the freedom to share it with anyone they want and take it with them anywhere they want, including removing it from the Facebook Service. People should have the freedom to decide with whom they will share their information, and to set privacy controls to protect those choices. Those controls, however, are not capable of limiting how those who have received information may use it, particularly outside the Facebook Service.

3. Free Flow of Information

People should have the freedom to access all of the information made available to them by others. People should also have practical tools that make it easy, quick, and efficient to share and access this information.

4. Fundamental Equality

Every Person – whether individual, advertiser, developer, organization, or other entity – should have representation and access to distribution and information within the Facebook Service, regardless of the Person’s primary activity. There should be a single set of principles, rights, and responsibilities that should apply to all People using the Facebook Service.

5. Social Value

People should have the freedom to build trust and reputation through their identity and connections, and should not have their presence on the Facebook Service removed for reasons other than those described in Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

6. Open Platforms and Standards

People should have programmatic interfaces for sharing and accessing the information available to them. The specifications for these interfaces should be published and made available and accessible to everyone.

7. Fundamental Service

People should be able to use Facebook for free to establish a presence, connect with others, and share information with them. Every Person should be able to use the Facebook Service regardless of his or her level of participation or contribution.

8. Common Welfare

The rights and responsibilities of Facebook and the People that use it should be described in a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which should not be inconsistent with these Principles.

9. Transparent Process

Facebook should publicly make available information about its purpose, plans, policies, and operations. Facebook should have a town hall process of notice and comment and a system of voting to encourage input and discourse on amendments to these Principles or to the Rights and Responsibilities.

10. One World The Facebook Service should transcend geographic and national boundaries and be available to everyone in the world.

Facebook is planning virtual town halls to discuss their new policies. They are also going to create a user council to address matters in the future. At the same time, there's also a group where you can comment. It's called Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

Finally, voting on the The Facebook Principles and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (formerly their ToS) will only be available for users who were active by Feb. 25th, 2009. Likely they will use the same formula going forward; you will have to be active prior to the posting of an initiative to vote. At least 30% of eligible users must participate for the vote to be valid. Facebook has summarized the feedback received at the group so far here:

"Forever" won’t work: Facebook’s use of our content has to have clear limits.
  • If I do not wish any of my content to be used for commercial purposes, or submitted to 3rd parties, I should be able to select this in my Privacy settings. Also, I should always be informed what 3rd parties my content is sent to.
  • Facebook’s use of my content should be subject to an easy-to-understand license, like Creative Commons, which lets me maintain ownership and control.
  • If I post or upload any piece of content to Facebook, their license to use that content should expire the moment I delete it. If I close my account, all of my content should be deleted off of Facebook’s network.
Opt-in only: Facebook can't just change the terms whenever they want.
  • If Facebook updates its Terms of Use, it should be done in a way that’s open, obvious and highly visible to everyone. Post it at the top of the site and/or send an e-mail... updating a blog on an obscure part of the website doesn't work.
  • Users should be notified of changes to the ToU ahead of time, so they can decide whether they want to continue to use Facebook or to close their account.
  • If Facebook really wants to test user response to any new policy changes, they should submit them to a vote before implementation.
Write it in English: No legalese (or Latin!) please.
  • Facebook’s previous Terms of Service included highly technical legal language and even Latin. This needs to be changed. I’m not sure what "forum non conveniens" means and I shouldn’t have to.
That last complaint though is fairly typical. Everyone uses legalese. If Facebook truly follows through on this, it will be a new day in the ToS world.