Signing on and opting out
“We do our best to keep Facebook safe, but we cannot guarantee it.”
“We can change this Statement if we provide you notice and an opportunity to comment.”
—Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities
Facebook is a wonderful way to share information and stay in touch. As a result of Facebook, I know more about the lives of some of my high school and college friends than I do about my neighbors. (And I haven’t seen some of those friends since I graduated from high school 19 years ago.) At the same time, however, Facebook is a treasure trove of misattributed quotes, misleading statistics and fanciful news stories.
Following Facebook’s recent IPO a status update began circulating in which users attempted to react to a non-existent threat by posting legal language that had no actual meaning or effect. It’s certainly not surprising that Facebook users have concerns about private information. A massive amount of information is contained there and anything connected to the Internet seems to raise an inherent sense of worry about Big Brother watching over us.
As a result, many people posted a status update that said, in part, “You are hereby notified that you are strictly prohibited from disclosing, copying, distributing, disseminating, or taking any other action against me with regard to this profile and the contents herein. The foregoing prohibitions also apply to your employee, agent, student or any personnel under your direction or control. The contents of this profile are private and legally privileged and confidential information, and the violation of my personal privacy is punishable by law.”
Posting information to a site whose sole purpose is to share that information with people all over the country or even all over the world and then claiming that the information is ‘private’ and ‘confidential’ is somewhat comical. Putting that aside, however, both the factual and legal basis for the posting were without merit.
The posts claimed that the privacy notice was necessary because Facebook had become a publicly traded entity. But Facebook’s move from being entirely privately owned to being publicly traded doesn’t affect the pre-existing agreements between Facebook and its users about how their information will be used or shared. That can only be changed by a modification in the user agreement. That same user agreement is also why the status update is meaningless.
Before gaining an account on Facebook, a new user must provide their name and an email address. They must then ‘accept’ Facebook’s terms of service. Those terms of service and the attached ‘Data Use Policy’ form a contract between you and Facebook in which Facebook agrees to allow you to use their website and the software that runs it and you agree to allow Facebook to do certain things with the information you post there.
That agreement cannot be unilaterally changed by individual users posting a status update. That would be akin to walking into the bank that holds your home mortgage and loudly stating, “Listen up everyone — I hereby change the terms of my mortgage as follows…” The concept is ludicrous. In fact, the agreement says, “For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos, 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.”
Users are not completely without recourse when it comes to their information. Facebook provides a variety of privacy settings that control how information can be used and shared. Ultimately, however, there are only two ways to completely protect information. One is never to set up a Facebook account in the first place and the other, as the Facebook user agreement states, is to “delete your IP content or your account.”
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator at the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney. His Facebook profile includes separate photos of him on the bench, in black tie and tails and posing with Darth Vader.