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Customers leave pieces of themselves when they quit Internet services

Posted at 7:34 AM on February 14, 2008 by Jon Gordon

Social networking service Facebook says it's making it easier for users to delete their accounts. Until now users could deactivate their accounts, meaning that Facebook would keep customer profiles in their system, but many users found it difficult or impossible to delete their accounts entirely. That prompted a critical piece in the New York Times earlier this week. Now Facebook is making it possible to request account deletion via e-mail.

Vanderbilt University law professor Steven Hetcher says the practice of retaining user-generated content, even when customers want out, has not been exclusive to Facebook. He says YouTube, according to its terms of service, reserves the right to retain user-submitted video clips on its system after users delete them. Here's the relevant bit from the terms of service:

6(c) For clarity, you retain all of your ownership rights in your User Submissions. However, by submitting User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube's (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels. You also hereby grant each user of the YouTube Website a non-exclusive license to access your User Submissions through the Website, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such User Submissions as permitted through the functionality of the Website and under these Terms of Service. The above licenses granted by you in User Videos terminate within a commercially reasonable time after you remove or delete your User Videos from the YouTube Service. You understand and agree, however, that YouTube may retain, but not display, distribute, or perform, server copies of User Submissions that have been removed or deleted. The above licenses granted by you in User Comments are perpetual and irrevocable.

Hetcher also points to a dispute over property rights in the Second Life game, in which a user sued the game maker for improperly confiscating his virtual land.

Hetcher says some Internet companies are abusing consumers' rights, using hard-to-understand terms of service agreements as their weapons. He says those agreements, which customers must accede to before they can create accounts, often hide the truth about data retention practices behind tricky language.

Here's a transcript of my interview with Hetcher:

HETCHER: On a superficial reading, the average reader would think the terms of service meant what they said, which is you could take all your information and that's that. Mind you, these are 15-page agreements that have a lot of lawyer talk. I've gone through them with my advanced copyright class, and they're very hard to understand for lawyers. So on the one hand they misrepresent because in plain language they say you can take your content with you and then in the fine print say, well, there are a few exceptions. Even pursuant to what they tell you can do which is take some of your information, not all of it because of the fine print, but even the information they tell you you can take, in fact when you try to, they make it very difficult.

wavLength: What's the solution to this problem?

HETCHER: The Federal Trade Commission has to enforce that these terms of service are not what in the law would be called a contract of adhesion, which is an unfair contract, such that the normal, reasonable consumer can't understand what it is they're agreeing to. Or the other alternative which we'll probably see is a class action lawsuit representing people who have been harmed in some way by having their data available.

HETCHER: Can user agreements and privacy policies be written in such a way that average users can understand them, or are the legal principles too difficult for that?

wavLength: You are right to point to the problem, which is how to communicate complex practices and really at some level you can't do that in simple language because the legal relationships are too complicated. Really the only solution is for the sites to have simpler relationships that are themselves transparent to users For example, to be able to say, we keep your information while you are on the site and if you leave the site you can take all your information and literally mean that. So the practices have to be simple and transparent in order to have a true meeting of the minds with the consumer.