In your Facebook

By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 25, 2009

Kaufman, writing February 17 on his blog, expressed concern over the change in the Terms of Use: "You can never ask them [Facebook] to forfeit the right to the data you've voluntarily put on their servers? (Then again, I have no idea how many other similar 'lifetime' agreements I am party to on the Internet. Do you??)"

Speaking later that week in an interview with the Phoenix, Kaufman said he was impressed by Facebook's quick response to users' concerns about their Terms of Use. "It's been similar to my experience dealing with them personally on the research end of things: They're very concerned about doing the right thing, about protecting their users."

However, Kaufman says he "can't be very explicit" about the safeguards put in place to protect users' data in his study, claiming that it's "a sensitive process between Facebook and researchers, the details of the arrangement." The gist of it is that all data is converted in "into machine-readable ciphered form" — so that it's impossible, he says, to tell who his subjects actually are.

"What I can tell you," he says, "is that our primary concern is taking any data that we collect and anonymizing it in such a way that no one, including ourselves, could turn around and then gain access to private information about individuals who use Facebook."

The relationship between Facebook, its users, and third parties is a tricky one that in many ways is still being sorted out, says Kaufman. "What we're seeing is this future of social networking being defined as we go along. Trying to strike a balance between what users find tolerable and what business providers find profitable. Facebook doesn't want to stay in business just to make it easy for all of us to talk to one another."

Just as "there are researchers like myself who think that there's a lot of very valuable information on Facebook and are trying to think of innovative ways of using this information without violating anybody's expectations," he says, Facebook is "trying to figure out a way to maximize an asset they've developed to an astonishing degree. They do need to make money somehow, and that largely seems to involve leveraging their users and their users' information."

As with the Beacon imbroglio, users' reaction to the Terms of Use change was immediate and vociferous. The good thing, says Kaufman, is that the company has responded.

"They're on the front tier. They're pushing the edge of this. Google gets a lot of the same backlash on innovative things they're trying to do, and in both cases I think the degree to which there's a deliberative process going back and forth between users and executives and lawyers has been pretty impressive. It's hard to think of fast examples where consumers have had such a direct and nearly instantaneous impact on corporate behavior."

"I have to tell you, personally, I'm awfully impressed," he says of the quickness with which users fanned the flames of this story, and with which Facebook backed down. "One has to wonder if corporations will become less sensitive over time as it becomes more pervasive, but I'm pretty astonished at the democracy of this process."

Facebook still plans to change their Terms of Use, they're just not sure how. The good news is that when they do, many, many pairs of eyes will be reading the fine print and ready to hold them accountable if they don't like what they see.

"They've retracted for now. But they've also made it clear that they want to forge some kind of new agreement about what data they hold and for how long. We'll have to see how on top of it users are. But there's so much transparency that it's hard to believe they'll get away with a lot."

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