Last month, bloggers gave Facebook a beating over changes to its Terms of Use agreement. On February 2, 2009, Facebook unilaterally changed a term such that user-generated content would be licensed to Facebook forever, even after account cancellation.

Previously, Facebook’s rights terminated when a user cancelled. Thousands of Facebook users protested en masse. By February 18th, the blogging “din” caused Facebook to revert to the original terms. On February 26th, it went further, encouraging users to participate “virtually” in its policy process, setting out proposed principles and rights/responsibilities documents. Facebook says it will amend its policies to reflect users’ comments.

Developed from print contracts and adapted awkwardly for the Internet, typical Terms of Use agreements better served pre-Web 2.0 sites, concerned with pushing out content to passive users. User-generated content was unnecessary for these sites’ success and a site owner sought protection against liability for unsolicited users’ content through blunt one-sided contracts.

Social media – by which users exchange personal information, comments, photos and music – has turned that model on its head. Users’ content is social media’s lifeblood and users have taken greater interest in their content’s use, storage, exploitation and most notably personal information disclosure.

It’s unlikely all social networking sites will adopt Facebook’s “democratic” re-think, but the Facebook furor suggests site owners should now reassess their agreements. Overreaching “boiler plate” terms should be abandoned. Although cynics suggest few read these agreements, social networking ensures that if even one person reads them, discontent can quickly escalate through communication tools such as Twitter, potentially igniting another groundswell of protest.

For this reason, site owners should remember the following:

  • Just because something can be done, does not mean it should be. The courts may enforce one-sided clauses, if reasonable, but if a “balanced” term both protects the site owner and treats the user more fairly, it’s good business sense to adopt it.
  • Beware of onerous clauses transferring all rights in users’ materials to the site forever. You can licence copyrights many ways that ensure the site owner has sufficient protection, while users maintain control over other uses or disclosures of their content.  
  • Use plain, brief language: no “legalese” unless legally required. Short, understandable agreements are more likely to be read.
  • Notify users of upcoming changes and explain when changes will take effect.