Why Your Notice to Facebook Doesn’t Work: A Lesson in Terms of Use

Facebook, the world’s most popular (and populated) social network, has once again been buzzing with status updates where users declare their rights against Facebook and tell it what it can and can’t do with that user’s content. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but these status updates mean nothing. Why?

The Purpose of Terms of Use

Terms of Use or Terms of Service — the terms (no pun intended) are used interchangeably — serve as a contract between a website or mobile application owner or operator, on the one hand, and the user of the website or mobile app, on the other hand. They are what they say they are: the terms of your use of the website or app. So long as you abide by those terms, you are permitted to use the website. Of course, since Terms of Service serve as a contract binding you to certain behavior (and, in many cases, prohibiting certain behavior), you always read them before proceeding, right? (Am I the only one that saved the email updates from Etsy and eBay and Pandora earlier this year to see what their updated User Agreement or Privacy Policy entailed? The only one that snickers at WordPress.com’s Terms of Service fun treat or “easter egg,” located deep in Paragraph 12?) Regardless, let’s take a look at the Terms of Service for everyone’s favorite social network.

Facebook’s Terms

Facebook’s Terms of Service (called its “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities”) state, right at the beginning:

This Statement of Rights and Responsibilities…is our terms of service that governs our relationship with users and others who interact with Facebook…. By using or accessing the Facebook Services, you agree to [the Terms of Service] as updated from time to time….

Did you catch that? So, by using Facebook, you agree to the Terms of Service. The end. The Terms do not say “unless you notify us to the contrary,” or “unless you alert your Facebook friends that you do not approve of this policy.” By using or accessing Facebook, you agree to be bound to its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

Facebook’s Terms also make it clear that, by using the site, you are specifically giving it permission, subject to your privacy and application settings, to use any intellectual property content (think: photos, videos, text) that you post on or in connection with the site. Many users are surprised or angered to learn that their use of Facebook grants this license. (Note: this does not mean that the site claims any ownership interest in your IP — ownership and license-to-use are two different concepts.)

The Point: What do you do if you don’t want Facebook to use your intellectual property, or if you don’t want to be bound to its Terms? You stop using it. Any post prohibiting the social network from using your property is useless. Look at it from this angle: in publishing a post, you are using Facebook, and by using it, you’re agreeing to the site’s posted Terms of Service.