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How Much of You Does Facebook Own?

People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo.
People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo.
How Much of You Does Facebook Own?
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If you use Facebook, your friends might have posted an update saying Facebook is not permitted to violate their privacy.

The message says, “The content of my profile contains private information. The violation of my privacy is punishable by law (UCC 1-308 1-308 1-103 and the Rome Statute.)”

You may wonder, “What is the Rome Statute?”

Experts say it does not matter.

According to the website Snopes, “the law just doesn’t work that way.” The website investigates commonly accepted information and tries to learn if it is true.

Raegan MacDonald is the European policy manager for a digital privacy rights group called Access. She agrees with Snopes. She says users may be able to adjust how much control they have over their information and photos. But, she says, Facebook’s terms of service clearly state the company mostly owns your data.

Shaun Murphy is the CEO of He aims to limit the ways online companies can use people’s private information.

Mr. Murphy says the way companies use people’s information is “creepy.”

He says, “Just recently I was listening to a new streaming radio service. I had put in preliminary information just to log in, and one of the ads served up had my name. ‘Shaun is an IT guy…’ and that was super creepy. I deleted it and never wanted to use it again.”

Mr. Murphy says there are two kinds of online services. The first kind promises to guard your private data and never use it. But Mr. Murphy says that protection is going to cost you.

“That’s their business model – they’re marketing your privacy,” he said.

The second kind offers a huge number of services for free – like Facebook. But Mr. Murphy says users should ask themselves why the sites are giving so much away.

“They’re grabbing your information,” he says. “From that perspective, if the service is free, you’re the product and you should be expected to be used as a product.’”

License or copyright?

Facebook’s terms of service agreement claims the license to use any data you post, including images.

Matt Steinfeld is a spokesperson for Facebook. He pointed out that “license” is not the same as “copyright.” He says, “When you post content on Facebook, or any information, you own that content. We have to have your legal permission to share that content.”

In other words, while you are a member of Facebook, you agree to let the company use your data. During that time, Facebook asserts the legal right to do almost anything it wants with your information: mine it for details about you, use your images for marketing, or provide your data to advertisers. In fact, selling data about you is a major source of revenue for the company.

But if you delete information, you take it with you. Facebook has no further right to it.

And, Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld says your specific identity is never shared. He told VOA, “We show ads on Facebook without telling an advertiser who you are.”

The legal line between license and ownership can create unusual results. For example, lawyers for Facebook argued that parts of your data -- the things you post -- are “trade secrets.”

Privacy expert Raegan MacDonald says that idea is interesting. “It means what is your personal data – what is supposed to be yours – Facebook is claiming intellectual property rights over,” she says.

Privacy protection

Of course, Facebook offers different layers of privacy. Users can select who can see and share their posts. Governments in some countries also offer additional protection about what Facebook can do with user information.

For example, users in the European Union have the right to request that Facebook provide everything they have ever posted, said or done on Facebook. That means people who want to leave Facebook permanently can keep all their data.

Some governments are also discussing whether users should have the so-called “right to be erased.” In other words, users could ask for all their data and online activity to be permanently removed.

Shaun Murphy of Private Giant says users can also do something else to protect their privacy. But, he says, “It’s the thing nobody wants to do.” That is, users can take the time and effort to read each company’s terms of service agreements carefully before clicking on “Agree.”

Mr. Murphy asks, “Take a look at the data retention – if you delete something, how long do they keep it? If they’re vague and use weasel words, that’s something you probably don’t want to use.”

In the end, if you do not want Facebook using any of your personal contacts, private messages or photographs, you have only one perfect choice: deleting your account.

But Raegan MacDonald from the privacy rights group Access says even that option is not good enough. She says people should not have to choose between participating in social networks and giving away all their privacy.

Instead, she says, users and lawmakers should support legislation to limit online companies’ practices and give users more control over personal data.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

Doug Bernard reported this story from Washington. Kelly Jean Kelly wrote it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

creepyadj. strange or scary; causing people to feel nervous and afraid

licensen. formal agreement to allow the use of one’s name or property

mine v. to search for something valuable

weasel wordsn. words used in order to avoid being clear or direct