Facebook and the Law of Stealth Changes in Consumer Contracts

[Update -- I've posted a few followups: Are Facebook's New Terms of Use Enforceable?, What Do Facebook's New Terms of Use Mean for Your Content? and Facebook Rescinds Its New, Unfriendly Terms of Use in Favor of Its Old, Unfriendly Terms of Use. Finally, 25 Things About Facebook's Terms of Use and Your Rights, discussing the current problems and where we go from here.]

Facebook earned itself the wrath of Twitter by revising its Terms of Use (a/k/a Terms of Service) to grant itself a perpetual license to use all of your content (which is typical of social media sites), even if you leave the site (which is not typical).

We’ll get to the substance of the change later. For now, a simple question: can Facebook unilaterally change terms of use without notifying users?

We get hints at the answer by comparing Facebook’s old Terms, dated May 24, 2007, to the current Terms, dated February 4, 2009.

Here’s what’s really the most important change:

The old Terms:

By visiting or using the Site and/or the Service, you agree that the laws of the State of Delaware, without regard to principles of conflict of laws, will govern these Terms of Use and any dispute of any sort that might arise between you and the Company or any of our affiliates.

The new Terms:

You agree that all claims and disputes between you and Facebook that arise out of or relate in any way to the Terms or your use of the Facebook Service will be governed by the laws of the State of California (and United States federal laws applicable therein), without regard to principles of conflict of laws.

That’s much better for Facebook users: California has some of the most pro-consumer laws in the nation.

Let’s get back to Facebook’s unilateral, stealth change.

Old Terms:

We reserve the right, at our sole discretion, to change, modify, add, or delete portions of these Terms of Use at any time without further notice. If we do this, we will post the changes to these Terms of Use on this page and will indicate at the top of this page the date these terms were last revised. Your continued use of the Service or the Site after any such changes constitutes your acceptance of the new Terms of Use. If you do not agree to abide by these or any future Terms of Use, do not use or access (or continue to use or access) the Service or the Site. It is your responsibility to regularly check the Site to determine if there have been changes to these Terms of Use and to review such changes.

New Terms:

We reserve the right, at our sole discretion, to change or delete portions of these Terms at any time without further notice. Your continued use of the Facebook Service after any such changes constitutes your acceptance of the new Terms.

Streamlined? Nope. The difference was probably Douglas v. United States Dist. Court, 495 F.3d 1062, 1066 (9th Cir. 2007), decided a month after Facebook’s old Terms, which held:

Parties to a contract have no obligation to check the terms on a periodic basis to learn whether they have been changed by the other side. Fn 1 Indeed, a party can’t unilaterally change the terms of a contract; it must obtain the other party’s consent before doing so. Union Pac. R.R. v. Chi., Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pac. R.R., 549 F.2d 114, 118 (9th Cir. 1976). This is because a revised contract is merely an offer and does not bind the parties until it is accepted." 

Fn 1: Nor would a party know when to check the website for possible changes to the contract terms without being notified that the contract has been changed and how. Douglas would have had to check the contract every day for possible changes. Without notice, an examination would be fairly cumbersome, as Douglas would have had to compare every word of the posted contract with his existing contract in order to detect whether it had changed.

That is to say, a month after Facebook claimed a unilateral right to modify its Terms without any notice to users of the change, the 9th Circuit (the Federal appellate court for California) ruled that companies were required to give notice. (Tech bloggers, like Ars Technica, picked this ruling up at the time, so I’m sure Facebook did, too.)

Arguably, Douglas does not directly apply to this circumstance, where Facebook and its users nominally agreed to permit such secret changes through the old contract, but it’s unlikely such an argument would fly under California law, which often throws out unfair mass contract provisions like these for "unconscionability." See, e.g., Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Servs., 498 F.3d 976, 986 (9th Cir. 2007)(throwing out class arbitration waiver as "unconscionable and unenforceable under California law.")

Did I just mention a class arbitration waiver? Note that Facebook changed that part of their Terms, too.

Old:

To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, NO ARBITRATION OR CLAIM UNDER THESE TERMS OF USE SHALL BE JOINED TO ANY OTHER ARBITRATION OR CLAIM, INCLUDING ANY ARBITRATION OR CLAIM INVOLVING ANY OTHER CURRENT OR FORMER USER OF THE SERVICE, AND NO CLASS ARBITRATION PROCEEDINGS SHALL BE PERMITTED.

New:

With respect to any claims or disputes you intend to bring on behalf of a class, you agree to arbitrate whether a class could be certified before bringing such action in a court of law. If the arbitrator refuses to certify the class, you will continue to resolve your individual claims or disputes through binding arbitration. If the arbitrator finds that a class should be certified, you may file the class action in a court of law provided you waive any right to a trial by jury. Claims for injunctive or other equitable relief may also be brought in a court of law.

Another changed required by law, particularly California law.

So, are these changes valid or not? The plaintiff in Douglas kept using the services for years without noticing the changes, and even so they weren’t applied to him. The same may not be true to users, like you, who are aware of these changes and keep using Facebook.

But what about your old content? If you leave now, does Facebook still have an non-exclusive license to use your content?

Likely not, given Douglas above, which holds, in essence, that Facebook’s new Terms don’t apply to you until you have actually assented to them. Facebook knows that, which is why their new Terms don’t have that " It is your responsibility to regularly check the Site" garbage anymore.

But you’re going to need to make some choices soon, since your continued use might be considered "assent" to the new Terms. We’ll talk about that more tomorrow, as well as the deeper meaning of the Terms, particularly in light of Facebook’s response to the controversy.

 

Max Kennerly is a Philadelphia lawyer.

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  • Ivan

    Great info! – Thanks very much for sharing…

  • http://www.morganmandel.com Morgan Mandel

    I don’t like Facebook that much anyway. If I leave, it won’t bother me a bit.
    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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    Very insightful – I have been cautious not to be swept up with the tide of protest until I find out more. But given the staff they’ve hired just recently and the strong terms of the new TOS, I may have reason to know why i must close my account. Thank you.

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    I always been prudent with it and never signed up – even under mass protest from friends and family, something about it seemed wrong – this highlights my initial suspicion. I’m relieved

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