What The Facebook TOS Brouhaha Is (Really) All About…

…And Why They Backed Off So Fast.

There’s been a lot made of the Facebook TOS update that came out a few days ago, specifically the exclusion of a line that had assured users that all content they’d posted to their profile would be deleted if they chose to cancel their account with the service. The idea is that if I leave Facebook, all my personal information would be deleted forever, and to the service, it would be as though I’d never existed. This TOS change has new been retracted, and, one would assume, any technical changes have been rolled back.

What’s at issue is that comments on photos and statuses, messages, links and even “Likes” that are ascribed to other profiles would then be deleted, and those – while trivial – are still “User Generated Content” (strictly speaking) with all the rights and affordances that entails. Indeed, that’s been what Facebook is claiming is the reason for the omission of the line that grants them the right to hang on to those materials, but I think there’s something else going on…

User-Generated Content must be “Future Proof” in order to have continuing value to the medium that carries it. In the past few months, YouTube has added a HD option to many videos. I’ve noticed a marked improvement in the video shown on my iPhone, and I’m told that those watching YouTube on AppleTV have seen similar improvements. This is all due to the fact that YouTube has retained the ‘original’ video files that were uploaded by users, even going back to the first ones. Thus, when they made the partnership with Apple (for example), they could re-encode all the videos as assets in a format iPhones and Apple TV’s could handle (i.e. not flash).

FlickR does the same thing, and one would presume that MySpace and Facebook are doing the same with all the content that is contributed into their systems.

Here’s the question: If I link to a video to share it with my friends (who presumably enjoy it) and they share it with their friends (assuming the privacy setting is appropriate), and I delete my account, shouldn’t that link to the video survive? It’s essentially ‘content’ that I’ve generated, even though I may not be the author of the original content, it’s link and the associated context I place it in, plus any comments I’ve made on it are effectively my content.

Facebook’s next big challenge will be how to distribute all this user-generated content into new devices and applications. Already, I can’t watch Facebook videos on my iPhone or someone else’s blackberry, and moreover, accessing any of the existing social networking features through the set-top devices (Walled gardens like XBOX360, PS3, AppleTV, Tivo, etc) is impossible.

Being able to access social networks through off-web devices is a fundamental and critical strategic consideration if social networks are to continue to have relevance in the next 5000 days of the Internet, and in order to do that, ensuring content can survive into each of these other mediums in perpetuity is a critical legal hurdle.

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