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EFF Tool Makes Facebook TOS-Type Controversies More Likely

Back in February, Facebook faced a firestorm of user anger over its changed terms of use, when The Consumerist noted a change in the terms of service that gave the company virtually unlimited rights over user content. Now the chances of someone noticing similar changes at other sites is greater because the Electronic Frontier Foundation has started a new service called TOSBack, which tracks 44 website policies over 20 organizations (including itself) and notes the differences.

By heading to the site, users can look at update notices for various sites, reading variations of terms of use over time and even seeing the changes highlighted in yellow. The targeted site owners are:

  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Automattic
  • Blizzard
  • Craislist
  • Data.gov
  • DoubleClick
  • EBay
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Flickr
  • GoDaddy
  • Google
  • MySpace
  • Organizing For America
  • Recovery.gov
  • Twitter
  • Whitehouse.gov
  • Yahoo!
  • YouTube
The focus on change is indiscriminate and doesn't make a value judgment on how "important" the change might be. For example, yesterday at 5pm Pacific, Facebook changed its privacy policy, but the only difference was the physical address at which someone can contact the company with a snail-mail question about the policy. (I wonder if anyone actually does write traditional letters about online services.)

There's one example that makes you wonder whether either the new service works as it should or if companies understand the intent behind the word "updated." YouTube is listed as having a change in its privacy notice. But look at the old and new ones side-by-side and the only difference highlighted is a change in the date -- from February 24, 2009 to March 11, 2009 -- on which the policy was updated. (I just cut and pasted text from both versions into Microsoft Word files and ran a comparison and, indeed, only the date is different. So why the update? Busy work for some underwhelmed lawyer?)

From an industry view, this could be a dangerous service, because a sudden change in policy will jump out. Even if the company means nothing untoward by it, legal wording might set people off, suggesting that perhaps explanatory commentary might make sense. Only then, someone could probably argue that the explanation should set the interpretation a court might use, so any attempt to slip something by consumers would probably fall on its face. (Or is that facebook?) Given that change notifications are available from the EFF as an RSS feed, you can bet the most militant of individuals and journalists will keep a close eye. And how long before the organization expands its scope beyond this initial group?

There's another interesting business take, as well. The EFF has just provided companies with a minor but potentially useful competitive intelligence tool. Eventually corporate strategy gets translated into legal protective notices, so this service could possibly help round out one corporation's CI view of another.

Contract signing image via stock.xchng user h9k, standard site license.