Facebook fiasco has lessons for IT departments

Ownership of data brings up many issues, says Frank Hayes

Forget Facebook. Well, OK, you can't forget Facebook's recent terms-of-use fiasco — it's been all over the media. First, Facebook claimed it owns everything its users post — forever. Then, after bloggers raised a mighty stink about that, Facebook reversed course.

Does it mean much? No. But there is a reminder here, not for Facebook users, but for corporate IT shops.

Here's what happened, in a nutshell: On February 4, Facebook made some changes to its terms of use, the agreement under which Facebook users can post to the social networking site.

A week and a half later, a blog called The Consumerist highlighted some key wording: Under the new terms, Facebook's right to use user-posted information for marketing, promotional or other purposes would no longer automatically expire when a user deleted anything (or everything) from Facebook.

From there, the story roared across the internet and into the mainstream media, no doubt helped along by The Consumerist's headline: "Facebook's New Terms of Service: 'We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.' "

Was that what Facebook had in mind with the change in terms? Probably not. The new terms of use have the whiff of overzealous lawyering, combined with a hint of not-yet-announced business plans.

Maybe some lawyer realised that backup tapes might still contain information a user had removed. A major crash, plus a slightly outdated backup, could theoretically expose deleted user comments or pictures to the world — and expose Facebook to a lawsuit.

Perhaps Facebook was worried it might be accused of destroying evidence in a lawsuit or government investigation, and wanted the clear right to archive that data.

Or maybe the company was planning on new connections with other social networking services, so data might migrate beyond its control, and the new terms were a way of covering its increasingly broad backside (175 million users and counting).

Whatever the reason, Facebook has since rolled back the changes. The Consumerist has backed down from its initial claims of a big Facebook rights grab. Users will deal with it — or stop using Facebook.

But what's the reminder for corporate IT shops? It's this: we are no longer in the IT business.

Sure, we do tech stuff. We're good at it and like it. That's why we're here.

But IT is now at a nexus of technology, business, law, public relations and innovation and, oh yes, a major recession. And technology is the easiest part to deal with.

No, we're not running social networking sites. But we've got an ever-more-complex network of our own: customers, users, business partners, suppliers and service providers all with their own competing interests and concerns, especially in the midst of an economic meltdown.

A service provider could change its policies or outsource a function without warning us, thus suddenly breaking our promises to customers.

Our management could plan a merger or a new line of business without telling us instead handing us puzzling new procedures or terms to pass along to customers.

A lawsuit could require us to do things that we can't explain to partners or even our own staff.

See? It's a mess. And now it's our mess.

So forget Facebook. But remember this: we've got many of those same complications, conflicts and confusions that led to Facebook's very messy, very public problem.

And Facebook-style fiascoes aren't just for social networking sites anymore.

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