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Did Facebook Violate its Terms of Service?

June 20, 2009

Yesterday evening, Facebook hurriedly launched a Persian (Farsi) version of the site for users in Iran. Following the past week’s events surrounding the Iranian elections and subsequent protests, Facebook felt that there was an immediate need to provide a Farsi version of the social network as an act of solidarity with the citizens of that country.

But this recent move may be in violation of Facebook’s own terms of service. Clause 4.3 of Facebook’s terms of service states, “You will not use Facebook if you are located in a country embargoed by the U.S., or are on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Nationals.”

A spokesman for the Bureau of Industry and Security, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, confirmed that there are currently five countries that the U.S. has imposed embargoes against: Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Sudan. This was also confirmed by the U.S. Department of State.

Many of these embargoed countries seem to have Facebook users in their respective countries. I’ve also heard from someone who lives in Cuba that Facebook can be used in there as well, although the U.S. has historically implemented strict embargoes against Cuba.

Facebook doesn’t specify what exactly it means by “embargoes” (trade embargo or arms embargo, or both) or how strictly this rule is followed. As Facebook’s popularity grows internationally, perhaps the social network should take another look at its terms of service. Other Web companies such as AOL, Microsoft, and Google are reportedly banning users in embargoed countries from using instant messaging and other software. Twitter’s and MySpace’s terms of service make no similar mention to restricting users from embargoed countries.

But Facebook may have a way out. It can apply for a a special export license if it can argue that its service promotes “independent activity intended to strengthen civil society,” which is a rule that is used with Cuba, according to Department of Commerce guidelines.

Here’s the excerpt from Facebook’s Terms of Service:

NEW: Facebook has issued the following response:

To be incompliance with US law, we need to prohibit commercial activities from embargoed countries. As events in Iran have demonstrated, we have allowed, and plan to continue to allow, users to set up accounts from those countries and communicate, as long as they are not engaging in commercial activities on the site.

This section referred  to was addressed in our response to user comments on the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. They are very common terms, though they are worded differently by different companies…Our terms have caused some confusion so we may also propose revising this section in the future to be more clear.

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