Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Whose data is it anyway?

By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Facebook logo, AP
Facebook has clashed with members over its privacy policies before.

The row over the changes Facebook made to its terms has thrown the light on the rights people surrender when they sign up to use a website.

It is likely though that until the row over Facebook's Terms and Conditions went public, few people knew what rights sites claim over the content that their members upload and share.

"Less than 25% of users are making a specific point of going to the privacy settings and making changes," said Simon Davies, head of digital rights group Privacy International.

Most, he said, are so keen to get using a site after registering that they do not take time to learn what will happen to any data that they are surrendering. Only later do they go back and adjust what happens to their data.

"A lot of sites do have strong privacy controls," said Mr Davies. Tweaking these settings can help cut down on how much of a person's data is distributed.

"It can make a difference," said Mr Davies, "particularly if the default is set in terms of maximum information flow."

Blogger Amanda French looked through the pages where sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and others spelled out their policies with regard to the data that members upload.

MySpace terms, MySpace
Many sites spell out what they do and do not claim of what members upload

Although the wording was different, she found that sites such as MySpace, Yahoo, Google and Twitter explicitly backed away from claiming ownership over uploaded content.

A brief survey of Europe's Top 5 social sites found a similar situation. The text of the terms available on the UK sites of Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, Friends Reunited and Windows Live all back away from claiming ownership.

By contrast, she wrote, the changes Facebook made to its terms were "extraordinarily grabby and arrogant".

The fact that Facebook moved quickly to roll back to its original Terms and Conditions showed how much respect it has for online communities, said David Wood, a Brussels-based lawyer who represents web trade group ICOMP.

"It shows the power of social networks when things go wrong," he said. "They can push back."

What Ms French did find was that many sites grant themselves a perpetual licence to use the content, so they can scan what people post, such as pictures and messages, and then work out what it is and what adverts to run alongside it.

However, this could change as in Europe moves are afoot to change the laws and guidelines which govern what websites can do with data and how long they can keep it.

In late 2008, the Article 29 working group, which is re-drafting data protection legislation, said websites were breaking the law if they retained data longer than six months.

While many firms have pledged to honour the six-month deadline none have done so because, so far, Google has declined to follow the Article 29 call. To do so, they said, would hand even more market power to Google which already dominates in Europe.

Below are excerpts from the Terms and Conditions of Europe's top five social sites.


"Facebook does not assert any ownership over your User Content; rather, as between us and you, subject to the rights granted to us in these Terms, you retain full ownership of all of your User Content and any intellectual property rights or other proprietary rights associated with your User Content."


"Bebo does not claim any ownership rights in any Materials that you submit, post, or display on or through the Bebo Service. After submitting, posting or displaying Materials on or through Bebo or the Bebo Service, you continue to retain all ownership rights in such Materials, and you continue to have the right to use your Materials in any way you choose."


"MySpace does not claim any ownership rights in the text, files, images, photos, video, sounds, musical works, works of authorship, applications, or any other materials (collectively, "Content") that you post on or through the MySpace Services. After posting your Content to the MySpace Services, you continue to retain any such rights that you may have in your Content, subject to the limited license herein."


"We do not claim ownership rights in the content, information, pictures, images, sounds, videos, graphics, software, files, or any item whatsoever that you or any other Member posts on the Site or otherwise makes available or accessible to other Members or users of the Site and Friends Reunited Service ("Content")."

"You understand that Microsoft does not control or endorse the content that you and others post or provide on the service. Except for material that we license to you, we do not claim ownership of the materials you post or provide on the service."

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