Last Thursday marked the tenth anniversary of the release of “The Social Network,” a biographical drama whose plot revolves around Mark Zuckerberg and his role in creating Facebook, the second most visited website in the world. With more than 2.7 billion active users, Facebook continues to dominate the social media landscape nearly 17 years after its founding. That being said, it has not been easy for the company to remain so successful.
The site has come under fire as a result of its involvement in several significant scandals, the most prominent of which concerning Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm that exploited a loophole in Facebook’s API to extract data from 87 million user accounts worldwide. While 2018 was considered by some to be Facebook’s most difficult year, recent events suggest that there is no end in sight to the platform’s troubles.
Facebook took on a $5 billion fine and consented to additional privacy oversight from the FTC in July 2019 as a consequence of “deceiving users.” At the beginning of this year, the company paid $550 million to settle a class action suit alleging that the company had violated Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act by performing face analysis on plaintiffs (for purposes such as automatic tagging) without their consent. In just the past few months, the social network has been boycotted by celebrity users and advertisers alike. Facebook’s own employees have criticized CEO Mark Zuckerberg for his response to the platform’s alleged role in the violence taking place in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Earlier this summer, workers even staged a virtual walkout in protest of the platform’s handling of President Trump’s posts on the site.
Shortly after the Cambridge Analytica debacle broke, Facebook announced that it was going to update its terms of service for the first time in three years. It appears that the social media giant has responded to its current dilemmas in much the same way. Last month, users received an alert that read:
“Effective October 1, 2020, section 3.2 of our Terms of Service will be updated to include: ‘We also can remove or restrict access to your content, services or information if we determine that doing so is reasonably necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook.’”
This past week, the updated terms went into effect. Read on to learn about the three things you need to understand about the changes that were made.
The update likely came as a result of Facebook’s legal battle in Australia
After a lengthy investigation, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner filed a lawsuit against the corporation in March for allegedly breaching more than 300,000 Australians’ privacy during the Cambridge Analytica controversy. The following month, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission announced that the government would be requiring platforms such as Facebook and Google to compensate the news media for the journalistic content they provide for their sites. This announcement signalled that the parties’ earlier attempt to work out voluntary codes of conduct had failed to address the issue of payment. Prepared by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the “Draft Mandatory Code of Conduct Governing Digital Platforms and Media Businesses” was officially put forth by Treasury Minister Josh Frydenberg in July. The ACCC is set to release the final draft of the laws this month.
Australia isn’t the first to challenge these conglomerates in this way. In 2014, Spain’s government approved a “Google Tax” that would have an analogous effect on the relationship between news publishers and sites such as Facebook. Google responded to the measure by shutting down Google News in Spain, creating a burden which would be borne primarily by smaller publishers in the form of decreased traffic. France and Germany have tried to pursue similar legislation with similarly disappointing results.
Australian Communications Minister Paul Fletcher claims that his country’s legislation will be different because of its reliance on competition law rather than copyright law. However, Facebook has already threatened to “stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram” should the original draft code become law.
Until the final draft code is released, it is unclear exactly how Australian publishers and Facebook users will be affected. Facebook appears to have updated its terms for users worldwide to protect itself in the event Australia passes its proposed legislation, as well as in the case that other countries attempt to follow suit.
“This global update provides more flexibility for us to change our services, including in Australia, to continue to operate and support our users in response to potential regulation or legal action,” a Facebook spokesperson told Fast Company last month.
Those in favor of the “link tax” and similar types of regulation believe that it is only fair for platforms and news aggregators to reward struggling publishers for the engagement journalistic content brings to their sites. Those against such practices think that the journalism industry benefits from the traffic they receive from these platforms significantly more than the platforms do from linking to news content, thus making it illogical for publishers to demand payment. For now, Facebook has made some strides towards compromise by promising to expand Facebook News, its dedicated news section that pays qualified publishers for the use of its content.
Musicians and DJs were not the intended targets of the updated terms
Musicians hit hard by the pandemic’s effect on the touring industry began to panic at the suggestion that Facebook’s updated terms of service would now keep them from performing live on the platform. Concerned bloggers from the DJ and EDM communities speculated about the impact this update would have on their work, frequently citing one passage in particular.
“You may not use videos on our Products to create a music listening experience,” the section in question reads. “We want you to be able to enjoy videos posted by family and friends. However, if you use videos on our Products to create a music listening experience for yourself or for others, your videos will be blocked and your page, profile or group may be deleted. This includes Live.”
The “Music Guidelines” page goes on to state that “[i]f you post content that contains music owned by someone else, your content may be blocked, or may be reviewed by the applicable rights owner and removed if your use of that music is not properly authorized.”
Although it’s understandable that these creative professionals would be concerned about the imposition of even more restrictions on their means of making a living, their fears about the October update are mostly unfounded. After all, the guidance quoted above has actually been in Facebook’s terms since 2018.
In response to the widespread confusion, Facebook updated a previous blog post on including music in video on the platform. The article reminds users that all videos should have a visual component, recommends the use of shorter clips of music where applicable and introduces product updates that will help livestreamers to understand when their content may be limited. It also confirms that filming traditional live music performances is permitted.
So, as a Facebook spokesperson recently confirmed to Snopes, though the platform does have policies pertaining to the use of music on the site, these guidelines have not been newly introduced nor recently updated.
When it comes to elections and other political proceedings, other recent policy updates may be more relevant
Others have speculated that Facebook updated its terms in order to censor political content in the weeks leading up to the upcoming U.S. election. While there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that definitively proves this hypothesis, it’s no secret that Facebook has been examining its role in politics.
In response to aforementioned protests, Zuckerberg announced in June that Facebook will now be applying warning labels to newsworthy posts that break the platform’s rules, including those from politicians. Meanwhile, posts discussing voting will be labeled with links directing users to “authoritative information.” The CEO also announced additional policies that would aim to tackle voter suppression and hate speech, including a wider-reaching ban on hateful content in advertising. Around the same time, however, reports emerged alleging that Facebook was allowing staffers to overrule climate scientists by categorizing controversial content about climate change as opinion, thus making it ineligible for fact-checking.
The platform has undertaken several other initiatives in recent weeks as it seeks to minimize threats that may influence users before and after the upcoming election. After a two-year wait, users can also expect Facebook’s internal oversight board to begin operating this month. This should not be confused with the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a self-appointed watchdog organization. In response to criticism from this group, Facebook has clarified that any ads that either contain content that “seeks to delegitimize the outcome of an election” or make “premature declarations of victory” are prohibited. Zuckerberg has previously announced that “political and issue ads” would be blocked during the final week before the election.
Additionally, Facebook joined YouTube and Twitter in an agreement with the World Federation of Advertisers to subject its site to an independent audit in order to prevent hateful content from appearing alongside ads.
In such a trying, eventful period when so many people are spending more time on social media, it’s more important than ever to be aware of the rules governing the biggest platforms. Although it may seem minor, this terms of service update could have major consequences on pending legislation in several different countries. While it may not impact you personally in the ways you might’ve expected, only time will tell what its larger footprint will be.