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A few comments on Facebook’s various ethics problems, which have been much in the news lately:

  • Facebook got its users in an uproar when it suddenly changed its “Terms of Service” to an over-zealous lawyer’s declaration that it had a completely transferable and unlimited license to use any content posted on members’ Facebook pages, forever. Facebook's terms of service used to say that when you closed an account on its network, any rights they claimed to the original content you uploaded would expire. The new terms said otherwise:

    "You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof."

    I must confess, it didn’t bother me much, even though I occasionally post pieces destined for the Scoreboard on Facebook. It was obvious to me that Facebook was trying to protect itself from future lawsuits from lapsed users who would try to hold the company responsible for keeping the photos they posted from traveling around the internet. Facebook could misuse the eternal license, of course, by selling user-generated content or using it for other commercial purposes, but it wouldn’t. Such conduct would run it out of business. Similarly, Fed-Ex has a provision in its contract that allows it to open and examine any package, but if it used that right irresponsibly, the company would be destroyed. The best example of ridiculous Terms of Service over-reaching is for iTunes, which makes users promise that they won’t use iTunes to create Weapons of Mass Destruction. You know: like those weapons that play “Feelings” or “The Pina Colada Song” at mega-volume until it drives everyone insane.

    But changing the rules without notice is bad business, bad public relations, and bad ethics too. Trust is at low tide these days, and small wonder. When Facebook’s president put out a calming statement that his company would never use the new terms in obnoxious ways, the membership was not convinced. Such was the uproar that Facebook retracted the change, and now some lazy Facebook lawyers (who should have anticipated how offensive the typical “let’s get a waiver of everything we can, just to be on the safe side” approach would be to its company’s market) will have to solve Facebook’s real problems regarding abandoned content with precision rather than the kitchen sink.

  • The Sacramento Bee asked readers and journalists whether a reporter would be unethically compromising the Bee’s journalistic independence by joining a Facebook group with a social or political agenda. The editor’s take: “I hold a hard line on partisan political involvement and local politics as well. Our staff should avoid involvement that compromises The Bee's independence, I believe.” But how does a reporter’s personal support of an issue compromise The Bee's independence? This argument always leaves me unpersuaded. If the reporter has an opinion and a bias, why shouldn’t he or she declare it? Why isn’t the public entitled to know where any reporter stands, so what he or she writes can be interpreted in that light? The editor is assuming that just because a reporter states a personal position, it alters the paper’s “independence.” But the paper isn’t the reporter, and if it was, the appearance of independence created by the reporter’s official neutrality would be false.

  • Many articles have warned that Facebook pages are natural resources for potential employers to learn “the inside story” on job applicants, and for current employers to keep tabs on their staffs. I’d call Facebook an unethical resource. Facebook pages can include information on health, race, political views and religion that employers have no right to investigate. It is unfair for employers, absent express permission from an employee or potential employee, to find ways to check these sites, which are created, in most cases, for friends, family, and social acquaintances.

    I would argue that it is unethical for an employer to even request access. This places the employee/applicant in the untenable position of having to choose between opening up private content or looking as if there is something to hide by rejecting the employer’s request.

    This doesn’t mean that Facebook users shouldn’t be careful about posting things on their pages that might make them look untrustworthy or otherwise unattractive to employers. But if I found out my potential employer found a way to see my Facebook profile without getting my permission, he would be an ex-potential employer.

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