Do you really know what> you've agreed to when you set up a new email account or try to make career connections at a social-networking site?
There's a lot of fine print that you may not have paid much attention to. Networking sites, for example, typically claim ownership of the emails, pictures or videos that users post on their sites. Yet, users often don't realize this because it's buried deep in privacy policies that can run thousands of words long.
While most of the terms of these agreements can be fairly innocuous, there are times when web sites cross the line. Facebook recently found that out the hard way. Earlier this month, the popular social networking site changed its privacy rules, giving itself the right to own or use any information posted by its users -- even after the information has been deleted. When word got out about the change, users revolted --- and Facebook recanted, reverting back to its old rules.
SmartMoney.com set out to learn just what you're committing to when you click the "I agree" box at some popular web sites. While some, like Twitter and Google s Gmail, let users retain all rights and ownership of their information, others not only have the right to own and make money off users' content, but also include indemnification clauses that say the user is on the hook to cover any legal expenses if the site is involved in a lawsuit based on that content.
Want to decipher the fine print yourself? Read our story
1. Facebook: Before We Could Use Your Stuff Forever -- but Now We Can t
Length of user agreement: 6,908 words
What you re agreeing to: Go ahead delete your photo albums, status updates and even your messages, Facebook can still keep a copy of them. But it doesn t have the right to use that information for commercial or any other purposes.
The fine print: "You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.">
A user backlash forced Facebook to revert to its more consumer-friendly policy, which says its license to use information expires when the user removes that information from their profiles. There is, however, an indemnification clause, which says users must pay Facebook s legal fees should the company incur any in relation to the user's material. We took points off for the unannounced switcheroo and the indemnification clause.
Barry Schnitt, a Facebook spokesman, pointed us to a blog post in which Facebook announced the change of terms on Feb. 4, but confirmed that the notification wasn t proactive: Users weren t given the option to read the new terms before logging into their accounts, and opt out if they aren t happy with the change.
2. LinkedIn: Update Your Profile or Else
Length of user agreement 7,082 words
What you re agreeing to: Allowing LinkedIn to own your stuff, forever, and agreeing to keep that information up to date.
The fine print: " you actually grant by concluding this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, assignable, sublicenseable, fully paid up and royaltyfree (sic) right to us to copy, prepare derivative works of, improve, distribute, publish, remove, retain, add, and use and commercialize, in any way now known or in the future discovered, anything that you submit to us, without any further consent, notice and/or compensation to you or to any third parties.">
Clocking in at 7,082 words, LinkedIn's agreement is not only the longest in the bunch, but it's also horrible for users, says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a San Diego-based nonprofit group funded by the Rose Foundation Consumer Privacy Rights Fund, the California Consumer Protection Foundation and individual donations. LinkedIn claims ownership of any information published in your profile, along with the right to use and commercialize it in any way now known or in the future discovered. They re taking rights they don t even know about yet, she says.
You also agree to inform LinkedIn in the event that any such information has changed since your registration and, if appropriate, you agree to make such modifications yourself...
We have> to update our profile? Really? Points off for the indemnification clause, too. LinkedIn did not return our calls and emails seeking comment.
3. MySpace: We'll Leave Your Stuff Alone -- if You Mark It 'Private'
Length of user agreement 4,336 words
What you re agreeing to: Allowing MySpace to use any of your pictures, videos or other postings if you fail to mark them private.
The fine print: "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.">
MySpace gives itself a limited license to use, reproduce or distribute your stuff. When deleted, MySpace will "cease distribution as soon as practicable." Any content you choose to mark "private" will not be distributed outside the MySpace web site. (MySpace is owned by News Corp., which also owns publisher Dow Jones & Co. SmartMoney is a joint venture of Dow Jones and Hearst Corp.)
When we went to mark our pictures private, however, we had a hard time figuring out how to do so. We could tinker with our account's privacy settings, but that only restricted profile views to friends. Still, according to Dixon, this is one of the more consumer-friendly privacy policies out there. But it does have an indemnification clause. A company spokeswoman confirmed that we were right in our assumptions on how to mark material "private" and added that the site's indemnification policy is standard.
4. Twitter: What s Yours Is Yours
Length of user agreement 766 words
What you re agreeing to: To keep all rights over the material you post and the right to delete it at any time.
The fine print: "We claim no intellectual property rights over the material you provide to the Twitter service. Your profile and materials uploaded remain yours. You can remove your profile at any time by deleting your account. This will also remove any text and images you have stored in the system.">
Short and sweet -- just like its users sentence-long postings -- Twitter's user agreement is the least wordy of the bunch, and the easiest to understand. In fact, its fine print is practically nonexistent.
5. YouTube: It May Be Your Video But It Can Be Our Cash Cow
Length of user agreement 4,107 words
What you re agreeing to: Allowing YouTube to keep (or use) a copy of your video and profit from it, as long as you have not deleted it.
The fine print: "YouTube may retain, but not display, distribute, or perform, server copies of User Submissions that have been removed or deleted....>
However, by submitting User Submissions to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube's (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.">
According to the site s policy, YouTube has the right to use your videos for commercial purposes i.e., make money off of them and it doesn't have to share any of the profits with you, says Dixon. However, those rights only apply to videos used within YouTube's site. If your video is picked up for use in, say, a television commercial as has happened before any royalty income is yours to take (as long as the YouTube skin or logo isn t part of the ad). Company spokesman Scott Rubin says YouTube does not seek to make money from user videos without getting their consent first.
YouTube gets bonus points for its indemnification clause, which does not hold users responsible for legal expenses or attorney fees.
6. Match.com: Nothing Is Truly Private -- Including Your Flirty Emails
Length of user agreement 5,252 words
What you re agreeing to: Allowing Match.com to access your messages and emails.
The fine print: "Match.com may review and delete any content, messages, double-blind emails, photos or profiles.">
Match.com claims ownership of any data that users post on the site, Dixon says. The terms do not specify whether that remains the case after information or profiles are deleted. Also, nothing you do via Match.com is truly private (see the fine print above). I know people who want to use them, but wouldn t because of their terms of service, Dixon says. And it says you're responsible for Match.com's legal expenses if the company winds up in court. (Match.com did not return our messages seeking comment.)
7. eHarmony: Our Compatibility Test May Come Back to Haunt You
Length of user agreement 5,445 words
What you re agreeing to: Your private information to be shared.
The fine print: " eHarmony reserves the right, but has no obligation, to disclose any information that you submit to the Services, if in its sole opinion, eHarmony suspects or has reason to suspect, that the information involves a party who may be the victim of abuse in any form.">
Fill out eHarmony s intensive 250-question personality profile, and any information you share becomes theirs, says Dixon. According to the site s policy, if it has any reason to suspect spousal or child abuse, neglect or domestic violence, it can disclose your information to authorities. While that is a standard clause in dating sites terms, the amount and the nature of the personal information users share via eHarmony could conceivably pose risks in the hands of a vindictive ex-spouse. You ll pay eHarmony s legal expenses, too.
An eHarmony spokesman says the company complies with the exacting requirements of state and federal laws regarding the privacy of electronically-stored information.
8. Google: Your Emails and Instant Messages Are All Yours
Length of user agreement 4,220 + 98-word legal notice clarifying intellectual rights
What you re agreeing to: Your emails and chat messages are yours. Google can t use them in any way.
The fine print: "We will not use any of your content for any purpose except to provide you with our service.">
At first, we were alarmed to see that Google gives itself a limited license to publish or display any content submitted or posted through its services, along with all the legal garnishment: The license is "perpetual," "irrevocable," "royalty-free" and so forth. But then we discovered a Legal Notice on users intellectual property rights, published separately, that says Google doesn t own and cannot use your emails in any way. Points off for making things harder to track down. Company spokesman Scott Rubin says the terms of service is designed to apply to as many products and services as possible. The legal notice was added to help reassure users that Google doesn t claim ownership in their copyright interests.
Want to read the fine print yourself? Links to privacy policies are typically on the bottom of a site s home page. Just be aware that terms can change at any time, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer information organization in San Diego.
Here are three key points to look for when reading a site's user agreement:
Account deletion: If you spot the words perpetuity and irrevocable, chances are the site hangs onto your information even after you thought that information was long gone. Limited licenses, on the other hand, imply they cannot use any of your information after you delete it, says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a San Diego-based nonprofit group.
Legal fees: Check out the site s indemnification clause (if any). To the surprise of many users, some sites say you are responsible for any legal fees they may incur relating to anything that you publish. Say you're going through an ugly divorce and your ex subpoenas Facebook to give the court any information it has on you. According to the indemnification clauses in the site's terms, they can charge you any attorney fees they incur, says Dixon.
Commercial rights: To what extent can a site commercialize your content? Look for terms like commercial, royalty-free and fully paid. These terms usually tell you the site can use customer information for any commercial purpose (say, analyzing user data and then selling targeted advertising), without paying you a dime.
Third-party agreements: Most web sites have contracts with third parties, such as advertisers, which have their own terms of service agreements that users agree to automatically, says Melissa Ngo, a Washington, D.C.-based privacy rights attorney who writes about civil liberties issues at PrivacyLives.com. If the site displays any advertising, you can be pretty sure it can sell your information though often as part of aggregated information on groups of users to advertisers, following the terms of agreements that you aren t privy to.