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The Complaint Almost Filed Against Facebook

Posted by: Douglas MacMillan on February 18, 2009

Even after bloggers and consumer rights groups kicked up a cloud of suspicion around changes Facebook quietly made to its service agreement in weeks prior, the social networking site didn’t back down. Instead, CEO Mark Zuckerberg stuck up for these changes on the company’s blog.

But a day later, on Feb. 17, word that Washington-based consumer watchdog Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) was preparing to file a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission sent Facebook scrambling to the defense. Representatives from the company called up numerous privacy experts for advice, including EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg. What Facebook wanted to know, according to Rotenberg: if they reverted to their old terms of use, would EPIC drop the FTC complaint? Sure thing, Rotenberg said.

As PC World reported, EPIC’s compliance appears to have heavily influenced Facebook’s stance. On Feb. 18, the company dropped the new terms, and EPIC dropped its complaint. But what was EPIC prepared to tell the FTC?

BusinessWeek has obtained excerpts from a draft of EPIC’s complaint that shed light on the beef privacy experts had with the changes to Facebook’s terms of service (in addition to EPIC, the draft was signed by the Center for Digital Democracy, PIRG, Patient Privacy Rights, and others). EPIC took issue with widely criticized changes that, in effect, gave Facebook rights to your content even after you stop using the site. But the group also faulted another move, which got considerably less attention, but that may also undermine a user’s privacy. Specifically, the removal of this line:

When you post User Content to the Site, you authorize and direct us to make such copies thereof as we deem necessary in order to facilitate the posting and storage of the User Content on the Site.

By removing this line, EPIC believes Facebook may have been trying to open the door for other uses of these archived “copies” of information. According to Rotenberg, one such use could be to allow users’ status messages to be reproduced on other sites through its Facebook Connect service. The draft of EPIC’s complaint makes explicit reference of the site’s Application Program Interface, or API, which is the means by which Facebook Connect partner sites can send information to and from the social networking site.

Still, the document states that the terms were changed “prior to” the decision to launch Facebook Connect, which is inaccurate, as Facebook spokesperson Barry Schnitt points out: “We had Facebook Connect partners months ago and we’ve had APIs for years,” Schnitt says. He asserts that the purpose of changing the site’s terms of use was “not to give us new rights or open new business possibilities.”

The draft introduction and conclusion of EPIC’s complaint, which was never filed to the FTC:

Complaint and Request for Injunction, Request for Investigation and for Other Relief

This complaint concerns several material changes in the Terms of Service for Facebook, the largest social network service in the United States, which adversely impacts Facebook customers, eviscerates privacy rights recognized in most states in the U.S., increases the risk of identity theft, and unilaterally and retroactively transfers control and ownership of user generated content to Faceboook. It was quietly established by Facebook shortly after the company reached 175 million users and became the fastest growing social network service in the United States and prior to a decision to launch a new Application Program Interface that would provide Facebook developers access to detailed user data. The change is an Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practice, subject to review by the Federal Trade Commission (the “Commission”) under section 5 of The Federal Trade Commission Act, and should be reversed.

There are many privacy issues that arise with social network services, such as Facebook. Some may be addressed through user control, user education, or change in business practices. But other matters go to the very foundation of the service, the rights and responsibilities that are assigned to the company and the users by the terms of service. This petition concerns one such matter. It simply cannot be correct that Facebook, having induced millions of Internet users to provide detailed personal information to share with their friends and colleagues, can now transform the terms of service under a take-it-or-leave-it edict that does not even allow users who choose to cancel the service the opportunity to recapture the data they provided. It is precisely in such circumstances that agencies charged with protecting consumers and safeguarding a fair and transparent marketplace must intervene.

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Reader Comments

Facebook Application Scripts Downloads

February 19, 2009 03:09 AM

Wow, glad EPIC is there to watch our backs :)
Facebook Application Templates


February 19, 2009 03:44 AM

Below quote says it all. Facebook does not care at all about your privacy... "Marketing is conversational, says Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and advertising is social. There is no intimacy that is not a branding opportunity, no friendship that can't be monetized, no kiss that doesn't carry an exchange of value. The cluetrain has reached its last stop, its terminus, the end of the line. The social graph, it turns out, is a platform for social graft." From The Social Graft, Rough Type, November 6, 2007


February 19, 2009 03:55 AM

CONCLUSION well said

david miron

February 19, 2009 04:07 AM

And I thought Facebook was trying to recoup the money lost in the settlement with the guys that claim Zuckerberg stole their idea to create Facebook.
Here's my cartoon take on Facebook's behavior

Avinash Machado

February 20, 2009 01:19 AM

Glad to see that Facebook was forced to revert back to its earlier policy.


February 20, 2009 11:43 AM

glad to see someone is watching out for us.

Troy Daniels

May 1, 2009 11:53 PM

I had a facebook account for awhile, I didn’t use it much for over a year, maybe more. I added a friend at the friend's request and within a few days I ended up adding dozens of friends through a network of friends (close to 100). I was a prominent member of an organization of which former members now seek support through networking tools like facebook.

In addition to adding many friends I did have some nude pictures on there, I admit that I did not read the fine print and I thought that only a few friends could see the pictures.

I’m a little surprised that freedoms are surpressed and censorship is so punitive when facebook friendships are restricted to only those you allow to see your account. What happens between friends is the business of facebook? I was sharing pictures with close friends only. I wouldn’t want my mom to see them, therefore I wouldn’t accept her as a friend. Without warning my account was disabled.

I have mixed feelings about it. I question how “private” facebook is and I question their “punishment.” There was never an opportunity to correct the situation, which I would have gladly done. I question the “right” facebook has to allow you to establish a network that they arbitrarily take away, without any kind of due process there will be friends with which I will never be able to reconnect.

There are limits to how much any business can regulate or censor its customers, even violate their constitutional rights, when they invite the public to their business. If I am in a store and the store doesn’t like a picture I show a friend, can the store kick me out? Can they ban me from the store permanently? How far does public policy allow us to go with the censorship?

Facebook is a private company, but so is the telephone company and they can't disconnect a call because they don’t like the subject of my conversation. The post office is not public and they can't refuse to deliver mail for which they find the contents offensive. If I violate the policies of the phone company, post office or any store they do not have the right to dismiss me permanently without a warning, notice or hearing. Personally, I think it is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Generally harm or loss must attach. In addition to the emotional distress people suffer, what about the connections people make to stay with others around the world? When those connections are lost, it isn’t difficult to calculate a monetary loss. In addition to many other scenarios, there may even be medical or healthcare advice being exchanged that could cause serious injury or death. I realize that facebook is putting the public on “notice” when it has the policy online. However, those wrap-around or adhesion contracts do not stand up in every state. Facebook should have an expectation that they could be hauled into court in any jurisdicton through long arm statutes and international treaty. I’m sure they address that in their “contract” as well, but, again, those don’t always stand up.

What’s also interesting is that apparently some receive a warning and some do not. This is but one of the warnings found on facebook’s “help center warnings.”

“You received this warning because a photo or video that you uploaded has been removed for violating Facebook’s Terms of Use. Photos and videos containing nudity, drug use, or other graphic content are not allowed, nor are photos or videos that depict violence or that attack an individual or group. Unfortunately, for technical reasons, we are unable to provide further information about the removed content. In order to prevent this from happening in the future, please refrain from posting photos or videos of this kind and remove any that still exist on the site.”

Apparently there are different standards for different individuals. It would be interesting to see the different standards used for different groups. In other words, is facebook discriminating? Does facebook have less tolerance for gays, lesbians, blacks, hispanics, women, etc.? They invited the public, they have to play by the rules of our society. The rules include some constitutional rights. While it is true that I don't have to join facebook anymore than I have to go to a store, it is also true that no one ever said facebook had to open a business and invite the public.

Sudip Ahmed

July 3, 2009 05:34 PM

I had account with facebook. But without showing any reasons they disabled my account. One after another three of my account was closed by facebook, even i had more than one account there with facebook.
Now they are saying me that, as i m blocked once, in my whole life i can't make any account with facebook ever. This is their terms and conditions that, an user can never maintain more than one account, even i never had. But if an user is blocked for any hidden reason, as facebook never show up the reason to make someone's account disabled, is that mean that person for life time can't access the site from any e-mail ID? I have found that, all the members of Facebook users group think themselves as God! They are missing using their power with users. Here i am giving part of correspondence:

Dear Mediline,
One last thing i want to know from you. After disable my gmail a/c (, i
had opened an another facebook a/c from my hotmail ( At the same time i
never used more than one facebook a/c, even i never had more than one
at the same time. But u said, due to that reason my hotmail a/c has
disabled. Now my question is, my gmail and then hotmail a/c has
disabled, now if i open any 3rd a/c with facebook, if that be any
violation of terms & conditions of facebook? If yes, don't you think
that would be unfair for uses? One of my account had disabled by fcb,
is that mean in future, i can never create any new account with
In that case, how can i still use facebook? Being the number one photo shareing site, facebook should not miss use it's power i guess.
- Hide quoted text -

Waiting for ur earliest reply.
Best Regards

Their Reply:

Hi Sudip,

You are no longer allowed to create any account or access the site at all with any email address. Creating more than one Facebook account is a violation of our Terms of Use. You have already been disabled for violating Facebook's Terms of Use. This decision is final. Please consider this our final correspondence.

Thanks for your understanding,

User Operations

My reply:

What's kind's of sin i have done, for that i can't have facebook for
life time? What's the way out? Pls let me know.

But no reply from them!!!!


July 6, 2009 01:30 AM

I am very disappointed with facebook!As one of my friend,play Poker games and won a lot of money.But on Saturday when he signin his facebook account,he was shot because all the money gone!Althought he change his account for few time but same problem happen again!


July 7, 2009 11:13 PM

What's really funny is that I am a paralegal in law school and have never even said a swear word on Facebook and I was disabled permanently. I told all my friends to go back to MySpace. Facebook should be boycotted because they have NO CUSTOMER SERVICE! I had a lot of friends from high school that I got in touch with on Facebook and then they disabled me. What a crock. I did nothing wrong. I recently saw on CNN that Facebook is huge now and makes billions yet they can't afford customer service? The owner is pathetic and everyone should find another way to keep in touch. Innocent people are disabled and some get by with slandering people. It's a big joke. They have their heads up their _ _ _ _ _ and the owner is greedy with no morals. They must be guilty because that explains why they don't have customer service. Because their website is so unstable and backwards they would get too many complaints that they don't want to hear and they don't care. This company should be banned and we all should get together to GET RID OF FACEBOOK!!!

Dario GReggio

July 9, 2009 01:53 PM

Besides being a "complete crap" form a programming point of view (extremely slow, perverse use of Ajax and other "new" technologies, etc) they indeed have a strange feeling of "justice" and "privacy".
I got warning, suspension, and disabled account without any explanation.

I am really eager to sue them.


July 22, 2009 02:03 PM

The bigger issue to me is that for all of the claims that these are violations of the TOS they are not. Many of the things that accounts are being disabled for are not mentioned in the terms of service. Rather they call these things harrassments. Despite the fact that the fact that the California legal definition completely contradicts Facebooks interpretation.

Furthermore, the behaviors that they call harrassments are the same behaviors that they say are rights in their governance documents.

More specifically,

I was banned for adding too many friends. All of which were actual friends or were requested. This is not mentioned in the Terms of Use but in a FAQ. Their governance principles state that everyone has a right to connect to anyone.

Sounds like they are in breach of contract to me. I wonder what my AG would think of this.


October 2, 2009 07:08 AM

why these people are unable to explain the main reasons of removing people?
and I explored that if anyone reports you for any reason they are in accordance with them and delete you immediately without asking this information is credible or not..

Dr. Dot

October 16, 2009 07:13 AM

Facebook has way too much power now. They have disabled my account FOUR TIMES in the last two months, this time longer than ten days without ANY explanation and they ignore my emails too. They are out of control. Myspace has way more freedom.

I can't wait to see Facebook outdone by a new networking site that listens to it's users and is FAIR!


October 16, 2009 02:04 PM

facebook needs to disappear. They are an evil fascist corporation abusing their power over the people. They won't define their rules, so that they can make up whatever rule they want on any given day. It is time the media exposed them for what they are. This is not North Korea, they should not be allowed to get away with their crap. I hope they are sued to bankruptcy NOW.


October 31, 2009 02:04 AM

i agree all i have done was get addicted to that stupid game farmvill which encourages you to get more neighbours so you can make quicker progress through the game.So what did i do i used the fanbase forum and invited people to join me and what happens i get loads of people joining me and facebook deactivate my account.They have made me feel like a criminal and now i have lost contact with family and friends.

Martin Keating

December 19, 2009 11:24 PM

I also became addicted to the game World Domination on FAcebook. I used advice that I garnered from Facebook sponsored pages on how to increase my ally base by mass requesting friends/allies. All of the people that I contacted in mass had freely opted onto lists desiring the same goal--- more allies. Now, I find that my account is disabled. I explained in great detail that I wasn't harassing anyone, I was contacting those that I had shared a common goal/interest with. How can this be harassment? Also, if the lists I obtained and names I garnered were from Facebook pages, how can I be in violation? Shouldn't Facebook start by disabling the pages these lists came from? I was simply trying to follow the direction of other members, contact those that wished to be contacted, and have fun playing a game that Facebook sponors. Now I am banned, I am assuming permanently, and I know that the 157 friends, while not an overly large list of friends, will probably not be able to ever contact me again !!! This is unfair, and absolutely heartbreaking to me ! Why should Facebook have the power to disable my account without due process, and prevent me from using a network of friends that I painstakingly built over the course of one year. This is terrible. Facebook has to be tamed and put in their place. This is America ! Not some backwards third-world contry ! I want my rights ! I want my friends back, with or without Facebook !

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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