There has been something of a furore over a recent change to Facebook's terms of service (ToS). The Consumerist reported this as Facebook's New Terms Of Service: "We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.".

The change in question was the removal of a clause stating:

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

[my emphasis]

So, even if I delete my account, any content I have uploaded to Facebook may remain. On the face of it, this sounds unreasonable. And the fact that this alteration to the ToS was made rather quietly is enough to raise a little suspicion. Objections to this change were swift and many. Fittingly, the largest concerted protest was organised within Facebook itself by the group called People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS) (ironically, if you want to read about the risks associated with the new ToS in this Facebook group then you will have to join Facebook as it remains a walled garden). The members of this group (claimed to be 60,000 in number) identified '3 Big Questions for Facebook', which boil down to seeking reassurance that Facebook will not, at some future point, exploit user-generated content for its own profit.

Now, I think it is good that this change in ToS was picked up, challenged, and has now been reversed. Facebook were clearly mistaken if they thought that they could just make this change quietly without an ensuing protest. However I, for one, believe their rationale for making this change in the first place. On the Facebook blog, Mark Zuckerberg justified the change to the ToS:

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.

His comparison to email is, I think, bogus - for this to hold water the world's email would have to reside in one system owned by one company, which it clearly does not. However Facebook is, by dint of its huge user-base if not technical innovation, raising all kinds of issues to do with user-generated content, rights, management etc. It has chosen to try to deal with these issues through a trial-and-error approach which may realistically, be the only way to do so. There is a lot of grey area to be explored here and a change, for example, which allowed users to delete all content which they had ever uploaded to Facebook would have a serious impact on Facebook's architecture and functionality.

Now, I'm certainly not a fan of Facebook. I have yet to find a use for it in my professional life and have criticised before the assumption that, for example, Higher Education should be embracing it as a service because it is widely popular. But I will say that I think the furore about Facebook's 'ownership' of user-generated-content has, by and large, slightly missed the point. There has been wide-spread concern about how Facebook might sell the rights to users' photos for advertising purposes for example. The idea that Facebook would risk the public wrath of users for this kind of business model seems, to me, to be highly unlikely. Frankly, I don't think that Facebook has any business model which revolves around individual user's content. There is only one thing of potential, unproven, value to Facebook and that is the aggregate of users' attention data. Typically, this would cover the data which a system logs about everything the user has visited and/or clicked on. Attention data can be exploited within a system to seed recommendation algorithms, tailoring a user's experience and delivering personalised content to them. In the case of Facebook, attention data could also be derived from user-generated-content (i.e. status updates, news, mail, even other media such as photos) which can be mined for clues about trends in interest and behaviour. We know already that Facebook has sought to monetise this - witness the Beacon debacle of November 2007.

There are certainly some interesting issues to be wrestled with regarding user content in the special context of social networking sites like Facebook. We should be vigilant, as Facebook and the like are by no means clear themselves about how best to manage these issues, and some of their aborted experiments will be harmful to users and their rights. However, in being vigilant, we must ensure that we focus on the real issue. We flatter ourselves if we think Facebook is interested in our uploaded photos from the office party. What they really want is to know what we think, what we like and don't like, what we buy, how we plan to vote..... People will pay large amounts of money for this kind of data.

And I won't even mention the CIA.... ;-)