Facebook, Photos, Privacy and Parenthood

This upcoming week is a big one for me and my wife: we will welcome our first child into the world. As you might know (or would expect), there are a myriad of ways becoming a parent challenges the way you think about the world you live in. When we first found out we were pregnant, one thing that surprised me was how uncomfortable I felt about photos of our child being posted on social networks.

I’ve long known about what some people consider overreaching terms-of-service that users agree to when they sign up for products and services online. If you’re unfamiliar with that concept, here’s a little background. When you create an account in an online service, you almost always see a checkbox that says something like, “I agree to the terms of service and privacy policy.” Sometimes you don’t even have to check a box—you’re agreeing to the service simply by clicking “Sign up.” Either way, terms, privacy policies, etc. are often long, detailed legal documents that outline the relationship between you and the company. On a basic level, they explain what both the users and the company are and aren’t allowed to do. In theory, these legal protections are good. For example, these agreements can protect companies from customers stealing/using proprietary information, or protect the publicity of users’ personal information.

Few end users (including me), ever dig into the details of those legal documents. Even if we did, though, they change often, turning the effort of being an informed consumer into a Sisyphean challenge.

Now, I’m far from a conspiracy theorist or technological luddite and I actively post content line, but what I’ve learned both working in digital marketing and doing a little research on what you actually agree to in certain terms-of-service agreements can be a little unsettling.

Facebook, content ownership and digital marketing

I won’t go into too much detail here, but the short story is that the default settings on Facebook essentially give them the right to do a huge number of things with your content. Those terms have made news multiple times in the past several years. Here’s a portion of Facebook’s terms from 2009, quoted in a much-talked-about article on The Consumerist1:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.

They’ve been updated several times since, including subjects like facial recognition2 and capturing the noise around you3. (Also, Facebook owns Instagram, for what its worth.)

In my experience, most people are unaware that, by default, they’ve agreed to let Facebook use (and license) any content they’ve uploaded for commercial purposes. You can, of course, adjust the visibility of your content in the application’s privacy settings, but the default settings are congruent with Facebook’s model, which relies on what users upload.

As someone who works in digital marketing, I’m reminded often how much we can find out about our customers with a relatively small amount of information. It’s incredible, actually. We could serve ads to specific demographics of people within a single building. Your imagination is the limit when you think about technologies like facial recognition.

Like any technology, these tools can be used with both good and bad intentions. While I understand many people’s fear of technology and data collection creating an Orwellian future, I’ve seen these tools used in powerful ways for good. Content shared on social media has helped topple oppressive governments and bring more transparency in places it’s badly needed. My own business has used them to help thousands of people find more fulfilling careers.

Even though I see the powerful potential for good in technology and social media, the flipside real, so I’m proceeding with caution as we work through the various implications of control over content about our child online.

Parenthood in a digital world

People have made thought-provoking arguments about posting absolutely no content about their children online4 and I definitely want to think hard about making decisions that affect my child’s privacy.

That being said, I’m in not operating under the illusion that it’s a valuable use of time to police every single possible instance of photos of our child being posted online. With mothers-in-law and Internet use in school, that will be almost impossible.

We haven’t figured out every detail of how we are going to handle these issues as parents in a digital world, but we’ve found a start.

First, we’ve decided that most of the content we post will be on a self-hosted blog5—a property we “own”. At a minimum we can copyright the content and won’t be subject to questionable terms of service (subject to change), but we can still post links to that content on social networks for the enjoyment of friends and family.

Second, before we post on a social media site, we’re going to try to do a gut-check, asking ourselves about the implications of who can do what with the content and how it might affect our child in the future.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive and I’m excited to navigate through it with my family.

1. You can read the The Consumerist article about Facebook’s content policy on their website.2. You can read more about Facebook’s incredible facial recognition technology on Reuters and Extreme Tech.3. You can read more about Facebook’s audio recognition technology on Forbes.4. Amy Webb wrote a very thought-provoking article about posting nothing about her child online. You can read the entire piece on Slate.5. You can check out our family’s blog at doddsinyourfavor.com.

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