Home Commentary TECH CHECK: Can Facebook Really Use My Content?

TECH CHECK: Can Facebook Really Use My Content?


by Jeremy Lesniak

From time to time I see people post some status on Facebook claiming copyright over their Facebook “property.” The current one begins “Due to the fact that Facebook has chosen to involve software that will allow the theft of my personal information, I do declare the following:”

These posts spread quickly, as Facebook is a lightning rod for criticism. The critiques range from overstepping their boundaries to making sweeping, objectionable changes. Is this legal? Can Facebook make use of your postings regardless of what you do?

In a nutshell, they sure can. When you sign up for an account on any website, you agree to the terms of a lengthy legal document that few people read. This document is commonly referred to as Terms of Service (TOS). The TOS outlines the expectations and prohibitions for both you and the company behind the website. It’s a legally binding document, despite the fact that few people read it. While there are certainly things that a company could require that wouldn’t hold up in court, we’re not talking about one of those.

The question is whether or not a website can use your contributions — be they photos, words, etc — for their own purposes. This might be for marketing purposes, internal testing or any other number of reasons. Bottom line, if the TOS grants the company access to your material, and you agree to the TOS, you have legally consented to this.

While Facebook is certainly the largest subject of this discussion, with over one billion members, they’re not the only example. Any social media site may make claim to your content, again depending on the TOS that you agree to. From time to time these TOS will be updated, and you’ll be forced to agree to them again. The thing to remember is that businesses need to make money to warrant their existence. Social media sites, overall, are free. While these sites are relatively new, they’re all experimenting with a similar business model in which you, the users, are the ones giving the site value.

See, without users, neither Facebook, nor any other social media site, would have any value. It’s the scale that these sites reach that makes them worth something to advertisers, researchers and the like.

The best way I’ve heard it expressed is thus: “If you can’t see a business model, you are the business model.”

That’s really the best way to think of the Internet, after all. We’ve become so accustomed to free services that we forget the companies behind them make money from our usage of the sites.

Microsoft ran an ad campaign a few years ago claiming that Google was “creepy” for having keyword-based ads show up in Google’s email service, Gmail. Microsoft didn’t do a very good job with the ads, because while some people find this practice to be invasive, most of us understand that there aren’t actual people reading through our email. It’s automated.

What if you don’t want to give these websites permission to use your content? Unfortunately, there’s little choice. Facebook does offer some robust controls for making your content private.

While this prevents people from seeing it, this doesn’t answer the ownership question. If you want to use these sites you’re going to have to give up ownership of your content. Each site is different, as outlined in their Terms of Service. I suppose you could give up the Internet entirely, but that doesn’t sound very fun. When you live in a world where the National Security Administration admittedly reviews the phone calls and online content of anyone and everyone, the owner of your Facebook postings seems trivial.