Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Facebook - What Happened to the Adult Supervision?

Last year, in an attempt to address the burgeoning growth and complexity of its business, Facebook brought in some experienced senior management in the form of COO Sheryl Sandberg, VP, Communications Elliot Shrage (both Google alums) and General Counsel Ted Ullyot (Justice Dept.). Sadly, this leadership has abjectly failed Facebook in its Terms of Use imbroglio.

Last weekend, Facebook changed its TOU in certain ways that covered the more expansive ways it needs to license user content. Not to "own" user content, as many of the more hysterical voices in the blogoshere contended, but rather to reflect the many ways users distribute their content via applications and the profiles of others.

The issues raised by those objecting to the TOU changes were similarly overstated for several other reasons: First, only a vanishingly small fraction of a percent of the content on Facebook has any financial value whatsoever. Second, even with respect to that small fraction, Facebook would have no incentive for seeking to monetize it via their license. They don't have exclusive rights, it's not their core business, and they'd face a riot from users. Finally, it’s well-understood that website terms of use are only enforceable to the extent they are reasonable. It's silly for people to take strained and aggressive readings of TOUs and argue that the companies involved would evetake those positions. Their lawyers are smart enough to know that courts won't accept overly-broad or unreasonable interpretations of TOUs.

So, the TOU changes: The problem is that, for a complicated web service like Facebook, it’s really hard to draft website terms of use that are both clear and cover all of the situations the company needs to cover. It takes a lot more time, just as it’s harder to write a short, concise letter than a long one. Sure, Facebook could devote the time and legal resources to making their TOU both a model of lay-person clarity and legal coverage, but – this blogosphere dust-up notwithstanding – the ROI on doing that is very low. Even a well-funded startup like Facebook has bigger issues its counsel should be focused on.

I thought Facebook had this all figured out and had made their TOU changes understanding that they would meet with some complaints. After all, Google faced similar issues last year when it made TOU changes as part of the Chrome browser launch, and those quickly blew over.

But here's where the adult supervision broke down: Facebook has now apologized and backtracked to their old TOU. What's shocking about this is the tacit acknowledgement that the company hadn't considered the tradeoff inherent in expanding their TOU this way, hadn't considered how to communicate the changes and hadn't considered the possibility of blowback. It also shows a level of pliability to a vocal minority that in't going to serve the company well should it ever go public.

1 comment:

coffee buzz said...

sounds like Facebook made the same mistake that Google made with their Chrome (web browser) end user license agreement