Facebook’s changing ToS

Changing again

Facebook is at it again. Changing its terms of service again. It’s the third, maybe the fourth time this year.

As changes go, they’re fairly small and they’re more transparent than you’ll find with nearly any other website: not only did Facebook send out an email to all its users, it even provided redlined versions of the documents it wants to change so it’s easy to see what the changes are.

Still, Facebook is such a key part of social media — and its history of rolling out changes that its users detest is so consistent — that hackles went up immediately yesterday among the large genealogical community that uses Facebook when the email started hitting users’ accounts. After all, nothing good was going to be sent out in a notice on Thanksgiving Day, right?


But at least these particular changes aren’t particularly bad.

The redlined documents — which highlight the proposed changes in red so they stand out — can be found on the web page http://www.facebook.com/fbsitegovernance and every user ought to download them and read them. They’re under the Documents tab, with four links there — two for the documents without the redlining and two with:

     • Proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities
     • Proposed SRR Redline
     • Proposed Data Use Policy
     • Proposed Data Use Policy Redline

The Statement of Rights and Responsibilities is the basic overall document outlining Facebook’s terms of service — the contract that controls what users can and can’t do and what Facebook will and won’t do. Its Data Use Policy is where it tells you what happens — or can happen — with the information you put on Facebook. Both of these are things we all should review to understand just what it is we’ve gotten ourselves into in this social media world.

A key example of why we need to read and understand these terms is this one, right at the very start of the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities:

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

What that means is that anything we put on Facebook — anything we write, any photo we’ve taken, any video we’ve uploaded, anything at all — can be used by Facebook, without restrictions other than what we’ve set in our privacy settings. But if we’ve shared those items with someone else (and, um, why would we be on Facebook if we weren’t sharing?), then even if we delete it from our account and even if we delete our entire account, that material will stay on Facebook essentially forever.

Think about it. And sit down with your teenagers, please. That racy photo, that one of the beer-guzzling party, that very foolish factual disclosure — once shared, it’s out there forever.

And when we set up an account with Facebook, we’re giving them permission in the Data Use Policy to use data about us in very broad ways:

We use the information we receive about you in connection with the services and features we provide to you and other users like your friends, our partners, the advertisers that purchase ads on the site, and the developers that build the games, applications, and websites you use. For example, in addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you:
• as part of our efforts to keep Facebook products, services and integrations safe and secure;
• to protect Facebook’s or others’ rights or property;
• to provide you with location features and services, like telling you and your friends when something is going on nearby;
• to measure or understand the effectiveness of ads you and others see, including to deliver relevant ads to you;
• to make suggestions to you and other users on Facebook, such as: suggesting that your friend use our contact importer because you found friends using it, suggesting that another user add you as a friend because the user imported the same email address as you did, or suggesting that your friend tag you in a picture they have uploaded with you in it; and
• for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.

None of this is being changed under the proposed changes we all got notice of yesterday.

The changes being proposed are, for the most part, pretty small. For example, in its proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, Facebook proposes now to let users use their personal timelines occasionally for their commercial purposes rather than insisting that every single commercial mention be on a separate page. In the proposed Data Use Policy, Facebook proposes to let anyone start an email contact with you via any message thread — previously users had some control over who could do that.

There’s a lot of effort to making clear what we already know, such as liking a page of a political group means getting a lot of political action on the pages we see.

There are only two changes that I can see that are not so small:

     • One is that Facebook is dumping the system of letting users vote on changes to these policies — it says it already allows users to comment on proposed changes and the voting system promoted quantity of comments rather than quality. Frankly, most users never paid attention to the voting anyway, and it’s unlikely than any multinational corporation is going to run the core of its business that way in the long run. That’s in the proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and is cross-referenced in the proposed Data Use Policy.

     • The other is that Facebook is reserving the right to share users’ data with outside vendors to “conduct and publish research” along with all the other reasons why it might use our data. That’s in the proposed Data Use Policy. It’s a bit troubling since there aren’t any limits on the kind of research, and while all vendors must agree to protect individual users’ privacy, I for one would rather not have my casual comments used for research purposes when I don’t have any say over who’s doing it, for what reason.

And, of course, if we don’t like this, and can’t convince Facebook otherwise by the deadline for comments on 28 November, our only option is to leave.

Leaving our data previously shared behind.

Welcome to the Brave New World.

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19 Responses to Facebook’s changing ToS

  1. Dave says:

    Thanks for this synopsis. It’s true Facebook tends to be more transparent about these changes than most (they’ve also been threatened with lawsuits more than most), but it doesn’t mean what they post is intelligible! I read about the change in voting in a Computerworld article, but hadn’t yet slogged through the rest.

    Unfortunately, this country is ruled by the marketers. I won’t be satisfied until there’s a law that says no company can exchange my personal information with any other company, affiliated or not, without my explicit permission (except when it’s necessary to effect a transaction, such as passing information along to the credit card processing company). I’ll be long gone before that ever happens!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’m afraid your estimate of the time frame for this change is exactly right, Dave… assuming it happens at all.

  2. Jeff says:

    Do you mean that if I have a family history/genealogy group (do they still have groups?) and I post a picture of great great grandma, that I “gave” Facebook the right to use it?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yep, that’s exactly what it means, Jeff. Your privacy settings might limit how much use they could make of it, but that’s all. And if someone in the group then shared it outside the group, your privacy settings wouldn’t matter at all.

  3. 1) When is this supposed to take effect?
    2) If we were to delete all our photos before this date would they be exempt?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The changes will take place at the end of November but remember: the rules about the use FB can make of your data are already in effect and are not being changed at all by these amendments. You’ve already agreed to those rules by being on FB.

      • Jeff says:

        Why does FB assume that they have a right to material and speech that isn’t theirs? No one gave them that right to something that isn’t theirs. I saw some (actually a lot of) comments yesterday after you told us about this. Almost to a one, every comment condemned FB for their actions and told them in no uncertain terms that FB did NOT have their permission to use material that isn’t theirs.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Jeff, that’s not the way Terms of Service (ToS) work. If a website has ToS and you start using that website, then you’ve effectively agreed to those ToS. And if the ToS give the website the right to use your data, well, your only recourse is to stop using the website. And remember: you have to give a website like Facebook some right to use your images and words or nobody except you could ever see what you post. This is true across the Internet.

  4. Judy,

    Thank you for keeping on eye on these terms of service for us. You’ve opened my eyes to the nuances.

    I look forward to my Legal Genealogist email each day. You rock!


  5. John says:

    Its my understanding that if we didn’t give FB the right to use the content we uploaded, the moment the software shared it with one person, we could sue them.
    We have to give them the rights to the content, or they can’t legally distribute it to our friends.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      “We have to give them the rights to the content, or they can’t legally distribute it to our friends.”

      Exactly correct. So the minute you sign on with a Facebook account for the first time, you’re giving some consent to use what you post there.

  6. Robin Mason says:

    As I understand it, and I’m not saying I do!, if I write an email to anyone, what I’ve written is copyrighted by me the minute I write/send it. The receiver does not have permission to publish it. So how can Facebook’s ToS supersede my right of creation?

    If I photographed something, I own the rights to the image. But if I post it on Facebook, I lose those rights? What if I post a link to an article with a graphic image that is copyrighted and that image appears on my newsfeed (and my friends’ newsfeeds)? Say the image is from the Associated Press or Getty Images. Does Facebook now own that?

    I did see that some people had posted a Facebook Privacy Notice in their newsfeeds, claiming copyright for their own text and images. Turns out it’s a hoax. But you can’t blame people for trying to protect their stuff!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The thing you’re missing here is that you can’t post anything on Facebook until you’ve entered into an agreement with Facebook by clicking “I agree” on its Terms of Service. This is NOT an issue of copyright law — it’s not Facebook overriding your rights; Facebook doesn’t claim ownership of your creations, it merely has a license to use them in particular ways. This is CONTRACT law — what controls here is your agreement to give Facebook some rights — among them, the right to publish what you’ve posted (because nothing you upload can be shown online if you don’t give FB that right). You don’t have to agree to Facebook’s terms, but if you don’t, Facebook won’t let you post. Like it or not, it’s a take-it-or-leave situation.

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