Facebook withdraws change on terms of use

Company responds to members’ protest of clause dispute

Facebook Inc.’s latest capitulation to offended users offered another reminder of the social network’s power for self-criticism.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company rescinded a controversial change to its terms of use late Tuesday after thousands of members protested that Facebook was claiming ownership of all photos, writing and other material posted to the site.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said that was not the intention. But Facebook reverted to a previous version of its legal user guidelines that didn’t include the disputed clause. He said the company would work to revise the policies with feedback from its 175 million users.

“Given its importance, we need to make sure the terms reflect the principles and values of the people using the service,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook’s corporate blog. “Since this will be the governing document that we’ll all live by, Facebook users will have a lot of input in crafting these terms.”

Facebook is no stranger to controversy. It has faced strong backlash to features including Beacon, its advertising service, and News Feed, its system for tracking and broadcasting users’ moves to their online friends.

In this case, users weren’t content to hand Facebook the rights to their personal data. They also were unsatisfied by a Zuckerberg blog post Monday that many thought amounted to “just trust us.”

Users carried out their protests on the social network, using the tools Facebook provides for posting blog entries and rallying around causes.

Zuckerberg has compared the Web site to a nation, saying that its user base would make Facebook the world’s sixth most populous country.

The dissent against the terms of use was akin to a political protest. Facebook took the analogy a step further, creating an online group called the Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

The company is using it to collect suggestions from users about its terms of service, which Facebook calls its “governing document.” Facebook users who logged in Wednesday were alerted to the changes and directed to the group page.

“Facebook doesn’t claim rights to any of your photos or other content,” the page says. “We need a license in order to help you share information with your friends, but we don’t claim to own your information.”

Facebook is back to the drawing board to craft a less divisive set of terms. The company will put together a more approachable document with less formal language, Zuckerberg wrote on the blog.

“They need to have two-way conversations with their users about their terms of service and not just talk to the lawyers,” said Steven Swimmer, a social-media consultant in Los Angeles. “I thought their response was excellent.”

How much the suggestions will factor into the new terms of service remains to be seen.

“There is a kind of deceptiveness to the way this thing happened and the way it was pulled back,” said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard. “People will have legitimate suspicions until they see the result.”

The Consumerist, a blog run by watchdog group Consumers Union, uncovered the initial change to the terms Sunday, thanks to a reader e-mail tip.

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