Special Report: When You Click Upload, Who Owns Your Photos?

Posted at: 02/17/2014 8:53 PM
By: Alan Hoglund

Facebook just celebrated its 10th birthday, and it's still growing. The site says it has more than 1.2 billion users. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 60 percent of adults use the site, and say that use is only intensifying.

When you snap a photo, record a video, then upload it to Facebook or another social media website, it goes public instantly. The whole process lasts just seconds. But is it a blessing, or a curse?

Where better to find the answer than at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Senior Emily Harris said "I probably use Facebook daily."

Everyone on campus either has a laptop, smartphone or access to a school computer. And students at UMD love their social media. Some sites and apps you may have never heard of, like Snapchat, Vine and Instagram. The most well known are Facebook and Twitter.

"I've been on Facebook for 10 years. I've been on Twitter since March of 2007," Eric Stoller, a higher education consultant and social media expert, said.

Stoller travels the country, teaching about digital identity, or how you look online. "What you do online reflects who you are as a person in all spaces. Online, offline, and face-to-face."

He calls social media a natural extension of the communication tools we've been using for a long time. Yet, you've heard warnings about posting content online. Why?

"Once something is on the web, the internet has got it," Stoller said.

That means pictures, tweets, videos, and Facebook status updates.

UMD student Jake Lindall said "I really don't like it to be honest."

The senior told Eyewitness News that he has stopped posting pictures to Facebook because he doesn't know where they'll turn up, or who will see them. "I think kids are being wary of that kind of stuff nowadays," he said.

It seems to be true, at least at UMD.

"I never post any pictures from the bar or anything like that," Harris said. 

Junior Amy Johnson learned the hard way. She said "I'm very careful about what I post...I posted some things that weren't very nice about someone and it went through the grapevine and someone else figured it out 'oh you're posting bad things.'"

So when these photos, videos and messages get posted, who owns them?

According some fine print on Facebook, they're still yours. But dig into the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and you'll find this:

"You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any [photos or video] IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook."

For Lindall, it has his habits changing. "I look at Twitter more. I find I get a lot more useful information from Twitter," he said.

However, to post on the site, just like Facebook, you've got to agree to similar language.

Twitter Terms of Service say you keep the rights to your posts but "grant [Twitter] us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed)."

When we told Stoller we'd actually read through all of it, he was shocked. "You're like the third person in the universe that has read the terms of service for any of these websites because they're so long."

When you upload a photo, it happens fast. Maybe after you're done you think 'I shouldn't have posted that.' Unfortunately Stoller said getting rid of it completely can be tricky.

"You might delete it a moment later, but someone could have captured it, saved it, and the next thing you know you're on the news."

Yes, you can control what posts your friends can see on Facebook with the privacy settings, and on Twitter you can make the account private. But according to Stoller "privacy is kind of a myth when it comes to the web."

To limit those post and picture problems UMD's Career Services office teaches students to create a positive online presence.

Ellen Hatfield, a career counselor, said "I ask them to think about who they want to see it and at the same time they have to think about who might see it."

Hatfield and Janet Pribyl, the career services assistant director, connect students with employers. They see social media as a vital and increasingly important tool.

Pribyl said "we promote the positive side. We promote using it in positive ways."

However, they said they have heard stories about how it can stop a career before it starts.

"We've known of a few instances where employers might have been able to look at something on Facebook and made a decision about not hiring," Pribyl said.

It's the very thing college students will not want to hear after that first job interview.

Very soon students Amy Johnson, Emily Harris and Jake Lindall will be looking for work. By taking to heart warnings about posting to the web, they won't have anything to fear.

Harris said "if you wouldn't want your parents or your boss to see why would you. Why would you even do it?"