Understanding terms of serrvice
The terms of service is a legally binding contract between the user and the social media platform in which the user agrees to adhere to the platform's terms in exchange for the right to use its services. Typically, a contract requires an offer and a consent, where the user must proactively signal their compliance by clicking acceptance of the terms. Other social media platforms imply consent by the users' use of the platform, with the terms of service provided in a link typically found near the bottom of the platform's homepage.
Acceptance of a contract also requires “consideration," in that both sides need to give something up of real value. For the social media platform, the issue of consideration is simple: they have developed a site that you use and, seemingly, derive value from. The more consideration you provide, in terms of money or other value, the stronger your rights will be when a social media company changes its terms of service.
In the absence of payment, however, your consideration is typically an agreement where you give up a measure of privacy by allowing the website to track your usage of the site—and often the internet—through the use of tracking cookies and other technology that allows the social media platform to better hone their online advertisements. In addition, many social media platforms take what they learn from your browsing habits and sell this information to third-party marketers. This information might include your name, email address, phone number, and other private information.
Any changes to the social media platform's terms of service must be easy to understand and digest. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has enforced actions against Google and Facebook for "unfair and deceptive" practices in how these companies provided their users notice on how their personal data are handled.
While courts have typically not assigned much value to privacy rights, recent legislative changes are rapidly altering the conduct of social media platform providers. While Europe's restrictive General Data Protection Regulation does not directly impact privacy protection for Americans, it has helped inspire states such as California to take action. The requirements in many states mirror some of Europe's changes, including clear notice and affirmative consent requirements for the use of personal data, as well as restrictions on how the personal data of social media platform users are used.
Protecting your rights and intellectual property
Your participation in the social media platform is important for the platform provider in attracting other users to the platform it provides. You provide the content in the form of posts, comments, and media. Most often, the terms of service provide wording that effectively creates a license whereby you allow your content to be seen and used by other users of the platform. Should these social media companies attempt to change their terms of service to appropriate your content for other purposes, such as marketing, it could be a violation of your rights.
If you feel a social media company has violated your rights by changing their terms of service, you can simply stop using the platform. Unfortunately, these platforms have evolved into an integral part of many of our lives, and going cold turkey might ultimately be dissatisfying. The Federal Trade Commission maintains a portal for consumers to register complaints. Websites such as Terms of Service: Didn't Read monitor social media platforms and provide summaries and grades for these companies' terms of service. Egregious changes might also attract the attention of attorneys who specialize in cyberlaw.
Ultimately, though, publicity is usually the best option to get social media companies to back down from radical changes in policy. The irony is that you may need other social media platforms to air your complaint.