Change to Facebook’s Privacy Policy Under Attack

1 in 5 employers use online social networking sites (OSNs) to screen job applicants.  Some employers even use OSNs to monitor the activities of current employees.  (Think workers’ comp fraud.)  If done properly and for the right purpose, I support the use of the Internet as a tool for employers.  But there are plenty of critics of the practice.  word background social networking

Those who are against the use of sites like Facebook and MySpace to screen job candidates cite “privacy” concerns.  I don’t buy it.  There is no reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to information an individual voluntarily posts on-line.  Yes, there may be other problems if an employer creates a false identity for the purpose of “tricking” an individual into granting the employer permission to access his or her site or web page.  But, the simple act of viewing something that was published for the purpose of being viewed, does not seem like a privacy violation from my perspective. 

Those who share my perspective have also cited the privacy policies of FaceBook and MySpace to support this argument.  The policies, which are part and parcel of the user agreement, made clear that, by posting content online, users agree that that content is now part of the public domain and is no longer “owned” just by the poster.  Facebook’s privacy policy states:

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….

Well, it did until a few weeks ago, anyway. 

Then Facebook added language stating that it maintained the right to use and modify a user’s content permanently.  In other words, Facebook’s ownership of its members content did not expire when the user removed the information or discontinued its membership.  This drew tremendous criticism from the blogosphere over the weekend.  On Monday, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg stood by the policy, defending it in a blog post.  But, last night, the company did an about face, announcing that it will “return to [its] previous Terms of Use while [they] resolve the issues that people have raised.”

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from this news story.  It serves as an excellent reminder to our digital society about the extent to which online content is actually protected as private.  It’s not.  The more attention there is to issues like this, maybe the more aware we’ll become about the lack of privacy when it comes to what we post online.

[Note:  If you want to learn more about how employers use online resources in the recruiting context, you may want to check out my upcoming audioconference:   March 11: 2009 Recruiting: Feed Your Talent Pipeline Using Online Resources.]

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