Facebook should lose the 'Like'

August 8, 2012: 1:50 PM ET

By insisting that its users declare that they "like" pages they want to follow, Facebook actually creates all kinds of potential headaches.

facebook-likeFORTUNE -- On Facebook I have "liked" both the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and that group's arch-enemy, the liberal Center for Media and Democracy. Those two organizations loathe each other. I don't particularly like either of them, but I do follow news surrounding ALEC, and the only option Facebook offers for following ALEC's page, and the page of one of its chief critics, is the "like." You can truly hate something, but if you want to follow it on Facebook, you have to declare that you like it.

Now a federal appeals court is set to weigh in on Facebook (FB) "likes," but all based on the notion that "liking" something means you actually like it. Daniel Ray Carter, a deputy sheriff in Virginia "liked" the Facebook page of his boss's opponent in an upcoming county election in 2009. When the incumbent won, he fired Carter and five others. Carter sued for wrongful termination, and a federal District Court judge in May ruled that a Facebook "like" isn't protected speech, in part because "likes" are not "actual statements." Of course, Carter had every right to express his political opinion, and he couldn't have been legally fired if he had, say, given a speech in favor of his boss's opponent.

The original ruling is a loser, and Carter appears likely to prevail on appeal. As Facebook says in a brief it filed on Carter's behalf this week, "liking" something on Facebook is "the 21st-century equivalent of a front-yard campaign sign."

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But it isn't, really -- not always. Often, it's the 21st-century equivalent of reading the newspaper. "Liking" often expresses interest, but not necessarily support. This argument apparently hasn't come up in the Carter case, and Carter apparently did (actually) like his boss's opponent, which was why he "liked" the page, and why he got fired. So the issues in that case are being argued on appropriate grounds. But in general, how can anyone know for sure, without any other evidence, why someone might have pressed the "like" button on a given page?

How many of these problems could be avoided if Facebook simply changed the name of the button from "like" to something more neutral, like "follow" or "track?" Facebook, of course, employs its users' "likes" in its advertising, by informing their friends of what they have "liked," encouraging users to join in. Changing "like" to "follow" might not have the same impact for advertising purposes, but at least it might save some of Facebook's users from being fired or otherwise hassled for tapping their mice on a Facebook page. And it might save Facebook's lawyers from having to write up legal briefs defending the site's buttons.

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