“Terms of Service” have become the new fine print — online users, for the most part, see them as nothing more than a check box standing between them and whatever site or app they want to enjoy. However, in a society where sharing has become a reflexive way to spend most of life’s moments, the terms of service, which detail things like what you can and can’t publish, may be worth reading more thoroughly.

At nearly two billion active users as of the third quarter of 2016, Facebook is one of the most ubiquitously-used social-sharing sites. Their terms of service, data use, and cookie use policy span more than 14,000 words and would take at least two hours to read through (the privacy section is only three sentences long, however).

Lindsey Stone’s Infamous Photo

It’s more likely than not that most of the 1.79 billion Facebook users (if not all) have never read the terms of service, at least not more than a cursory glance. This means that, when sharing things like status updates and photos, users are generally doing so blindly, not knowing what “sharing” really means.

One unfortunate example is the case of Facebook user Lindsey Stone. Lindsey had been an employee of Life (Living Independently Forever), a residence for high-functioning people with learning difficulties. In October of 2012, they took a field trip to Washington DC where they visited various historical sites, including Arlington National Cemetery. It was there that Lindsey and her coworker and friend Jamie took a photograph as part of a long-standing inside joke they had, where they’d take silly, mocking pictures in front of signs and statues. They took what they thought was a funny picture at the cemetery.

Thinking it was harmless humor, Jamie posted it to Facebook and tagged Lindsey with her consent. What neither of them realized, however, was that Jamie’s mobile sharing settings weren’t private.

Facebook’s Terms of Service

According to Facebook’s terms of use section on photos:

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), 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 (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

It’s also worth noting the following:

When you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others).

Facebook does not define what a reasonable period of time is. It’s also important to point out that when you delete a photo or your account, the image could still be saved in other places and be accessible in the public domain.

In other words, Facebook has the right to use your content (photos and videos specifically) in any way they want, and their license even extends beyond their own use: they can hand the rights over to another company. Even further, Facebook’s license does not end when a user deletes their account; content is only released from this license once all other users that have interacted with the content have also broken their ties with it (for example, a photo or video shared or tagged with a
group of friends).

The Consequences to Lindsey’s Life and Reputation

Four weeks after posting, the image of Lindsey went viral in the worst way. The comments section looked like a mob of witch hunters and a “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook page had even been created, and the press showed up at her house. Lindsey was quickly fired, subjected to rape and death threats, and soon fell into a depression where she didn’t leave her house for a year. No one would hire her, and when she finally did get a job, she was paranoid and petrified that her new bosses would find out.

Virtually overnight, her life and reputation was destroyed — something that would’ve never happened had no one seen the photo. People do mindless things and make what others may perceive as mistakes all the time, but if they’re shared for the world to see, the consequences are grievous.

This is, unfortunately, not a unique occurrence, and the lessons are plenty, including:

Think twice before posting — While senses of humor vary, use your best judgement when sharing anything online. Ask yourself if anyone could find it offensive. If you’re unsure, it’s best to keep it unshared.

Double (and triple) check privacy settings — Sites like Facebook update terms of service and privacy settings frequently, so it’s best practice to go over your personal share settings on a regular basis to make sure no important box goes unchecked.

Know What You Can (and Can’t) Control — As with most things, knowledge is power, and in this case, protection. It’s important to know, for example, what you can and can’t control on social media sites like Facebook. Facebook allows users to control what data they share with friends by selecting audiences (Friends, Public, or Only Me) from the privacy menu, or from the drop-down menus on individual posts.

What users can’t control, however, is the data that Facebook collects including GPS data, which Facebook uses to see if friends are nearby, or to target ads. They also automatically collect information on every web page users visit while they’re logged in and every app users log into with their Facebook details.

To quickly check what you may be sharing publicly instead of privately, go to your Facebook profile and look for the three dots near your cover photo and select the “View As” option under “Who can see my stuff?” Select the “Public” view to see how your profile is viewed by someone you don’t know. If you decide you do not want to share certain parts of your profile, go to the lock symbol at the top of your screen and select “Privacy Checkup” and Facebook will walk you through the various section settings.

Recommendations for Using Facebook More Securely

ReputationManagement.com recommends the following for safer Facebook sharing:

Don’t give Facebook your number — This can quickly lead to an invasion of privacy, like when Facebook suggests people as friends who you might not want finding your profile (e.g., a therapist and client).

Don’t post on public pages — When you post on a public page, such as a brand’s page, it means that you’re allowing everyone, including non-Facebook users, to access and use that information, and to associate it with your name and profile picture. In fact, these comments can appear in search results for your name. Currently, no privacy settings exists that allow users to hide them.

Make friends lists — If you want to share certain posts with some friends and not others, and also not publicly, you can use lists to determine who sees which posts you publish.

The unnerving truth is that Lindsey’s story only briefly touches on potential issues with Facebook and privacy. More recently, there have been disturbing live video mishaps, facial recognition lawsuits, and more cases of revenge porn. Facebook can be a safe and fun space to share, but it’s crucial to be hyper aware of what you post, to know what Facebook’s rights are over your content, and to understand the potential effects the content you share could have on your reputation.