Oliver Smith: Facebook’s terms and conditions mean you don't really own your online life
WHEN joining a social network, you are likely to spend more time considering which photo you will use on your profile than reading the lengthy terms of service document. And yet, off-putting though Facebook's 14,000-word terms of service and data use policy might be, it is a legal contract between you and the social network. Do you know what you've signed up for?
Last month, users of Instagram reacted with anger at proposed changes to the company's terms that would give the mobile photo-sharing app the right to use member's photos in advertising campaigns.
In some ways, the change was a positive step. It eschewed traditional legal language, instead using clear terminology to precisely explain what the company would and would not do with its members' content. But that clarity made obvious the lengths to which the company might go in order to monetise the free service. Even after Instagram had reversed its decision, removing the controversial elements from their new terms of service, some users still closed their accounts in protest.
What rights have users granted to online services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google? Does posting content on these networks mean forfeiting your ownership of your photos, for example?
A photo posted on Twitter remains the intellectual property of the user but Twitter's terms give the company "a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense)". In practice, that gives Twitter almost total control over the image and the ability to do just about anything with it. The company claims the right to use, modify or transmit it your photo any way.
Callum Sinclair, partner in the Intellectual Property and Technology group of law firm, DLA Piper, says that Twitter's terms, to which every new member must agree, "grant extremely broad rights over your content… With these terms companies are saying 'you own your content, but we can just use it however we want.'"
Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group, a non-profit group who campaign for users rights online, believes that many terms of service are confusing and misleading for users. He says: "A lot of the time it really isn't transparent what these agreements mean. People haven't really understood what they have entered into. Often companies will over-egg what they need, and it's a land grab for users' rights and content.”
The most striking example of such a 'land grab' can be seen on professional networking site LinkedIn. LinkedIn makes broad claims over users' content, giving it the ability to "copy, prepare derivative works of, improve, distribute, publish, remove, retain, add, process, analyze, use and commercialise, in any way now known or in the future discovered…" LinkedIn applies this claim not only to users content, but also all data, concepts or even ideas passed through their service.
LinkedIn's catch-all terms of service have been agreed to and accepted by a host of high-profile business people, including Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, Arianna Huffington, president of The Huffington Post Media Group and James Caan, CEO of Hamilton Bradshaw and a regular on the BBC's Dragon's Den.
Mr Sinclair warns that these business people, like many users, may not have realised what they were agreeing to, but advises users not sign up blindly to a company’s terms of service.
"I must recommend everyone actually try to read the terms, even if it is just the key terminology," he says. "Because you are publishing on these company’s services, you may have already forfeited any sort of intellectual property rights you may have had to such content.”
Twitter now includes a brief explanation under each paragraph of legalese, explaining what it means to grant a 'non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license' to their content. Mr Sinclair explains "In reality there is little difference between your ownership and their license when the terms of the licenses over your content are this broad."
What the terms of service say
With over a billion users, Facebook is the definitive homepage for many web users. Its terms of service, data use and cookie use policy span more than 14,000 words over eight separate pages and would take even the quickest reader more than two hours to dig through. But what rights have you handed over to Facebook?
Specifically for photos and video uploaded to the site, Facebook has a licence to use your content in any way it sees fit, with a licence that goes beyond merely covering the operation of the service in its current form. Facebook can transfer or sub-license its rights over a user’s content to another company or organisation if needed. Facebook’s licence does not end upon the deactivation or deletion of a user’s account, content is only released from this licence once all other users that have interacted with the content have also broken their ties with it (for example, a photo or video shared or tagged with a group of friends).
Fast becoming the second social network behind Facebook, Twitter's model for monetising the service has yet to be established, a fact clearly seen in its terms of service. Twitter's terms give it broad scope to use, change and distribute any photos, writing or video posted through Twitter's service, to any other forms of media or distribution method it wishes, including those which Twitter has not yet thought of or developed. Similarly to Facebook, Twitter's license also allows it to pass any of your content to any partner organisations for any reason.
Making only small waves in the field of social networking, Google+ is probably not the place where most users first agreed to Google's terms of service. Most users probably signed up through one of Google’s many online services like Gmail, Google Maps or Google Drive. Luckily Google has a modest set of terms when it comes to user’s content, restricting its use of such content only for "the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones."
The free file storage service that promises to ‘simplify your life’ takes only the smallest liberties with its user’s content and rights. Dropbox limits their use of your data "solely to provide the services… no matter how the services change, we won’t share your content with others…" These permissions do extend to allowing Dropbox to share user’s data with "trusted third parties" but again, only in order to provide their existing services.