Last month, there was something of a controversy regarding the terms of service for the popular social networking site Facebook. The issue (described in this article) was that Facebook removed a statement from its terms of service that said it couldn't claim rights in original content uploaded by users after they terminated their accounts, and replaced it with a statement saying that Facebook might maintain archived copies of user content. From my perspective, this would not have seemed like a significant event. I assume that everything (including this web site) I put online is archived somewhere, whether its at the site that's hosting the content (e.g., Facebook), some external site (e.g., the internet archive), or the local computers of whoever happens to have looked at whatever I posted (e.g., blog readers). My guess is that the lawyers who recommended that Facebook make the change thought that most Facebook users were about like me, and wouldn't see the modification of the policy as a significant change.
They were wrong.
Facebook's users were outraged. They started a Facebook group (!) to protest, and it quickly signed up 88,000 members. The Electronic Privacy Information Center prepared an FTC complaint. As one user rhetorically asked: "Will I wind up seeing pictures of my niece staring at me from a bus stop at some point and be told I shoulda read the fine print?" (quote via this article).
Anyway, because of the outrage, Facebook backed down, and is now asking users to help define its policies (article here). On one hand, it's a demonstration that consumer pressure actually can have beneficial effects. On the other hand, it's a demonstration that privacy concerns crop up over the most bizarre things. For example, if someone really wants to have their niece's picture taken out of an advertisement, they can sue Facebook for making an unauthorized public display and get an injunction.* Additionally, there have been several cases where people have sued for common law torts such as libel, or false light invasion of privacy for using pictures in advertisements without the subjects' consent (e.g., Virgin, which was sued for using a picture uploaded to Flickr with the tag line "virgin to virgin" - article here). In short, the fears that led to the revolt against Facebook are one of the areas where the law does offer redress for unauthorized use of personal data. Strange that people got outraged over that, rather than something where the law offers little or no protection.
*Copyright protection subsists in any work fixed in a tangible medium of expression. 17 USC 102. That includes computer memory, which means that everything uploaded to Facebook is automatically protected by copyright.**
**Yes, there is a requirement for registration, but you can register after infringement has taken place. 17 USC 408 et seq. While there are significant advantages to registering before an infringement occurs, a discussion of those advantages is way outside the scope of this post.