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Social Media Sites, Explained

Billions of people use social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Linkedin. These platforms allow us to connect with the world, friends, family, busines professionals and countless others with similar interests, but before we sign up, many of us do not read the terms of service or privacy policies. When you share your photos and memorable moments with friends, family or even customers, those websites are sharing a lot more than just what you upload — and you agreed to it. Asked whether they read the fine print before signing up, social media users in mid-Missouri reported they do not know anyone who does, that the type is too small, or too long to take the time to review. Those dozens of pages of small print and legal terminology, known as user agreements, and avoided or ignored by most users, are legally binding contracts. “By virtue of participating, they are informing you, and you are agreeing to their collection and use of that information,” says Craig Chval, a local attorney with Veterans United. “In the most fundamental sense, you’re allowing them to use your content, whatever content you choose to put on the site.” It starts with the most basic information — the information required to open the account — such as a name, e-mail address and password. The user agreement contracts also allow the social media host access to any content you post, including profile information, ideas, thoughts, videos and pictures. But Chval says the information these sites collect can go beyond the things you know you are giving them. Some can even collect information like whether you accessed them via a phone or computer, whether you are using a Mac or a PC, as well as the site you visited before and after the social media page. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Pinterest also collect what they describe as “log data.” They know your internet provider, or I.P. address, so they know which computer you use, which web browser you prefer and the application you used to log on. “I get that I entered some information when I opened my account; I get that I’m uploading photos or uploading videos, or I’m typing some words on my computer to provide a status update, it’s the other information,” Chval says, “probably the more useful information to them, is this other information they collect without us necessarily realizing that they’re collecting that.” These social media sites use “cookies,” or technologies that track your online habits, to collect all this log data. You agreed to let them use these cookies when you signed up with the social media networks, but you do not have to be logged in to their sites for the cookies to be collecting your information. The sites investigated in this report — Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Pinterest — all say they use this information to improve their sites and to learn your habits to tailor their sites to you. But that means they also use the data to know what advertisements best suit your tastes. They can use your e-mail to communicate with you, and ultimately they all share the information with their business partners. “I think you can assume that that’s a business transaction,” Chval reminds us, “that they are providing that information to their advertising partners for compensation .. they may not use the word ‘sell’ in their terms of agreement or their statements on how they use their data, [but] they are absolutely commercial transactions.” The privacy policies inform users that they still own the content they post, but that they license that content to the site to be used royalty-free. However, as a user, you do have options to limit this data collection. The four websites we investigated allow you to change your information settings, but those are options are often limited. You cannot opt out of the information cookies are designed to collect. “You’re certainly not going to negotiate with Facebook and say, ‘I don’t really like this provision, can we take this out?'” Chval reiterates. “One thing you maybe can do is to disable cookies, but that obviously impacts the functionality of a lot of the sites.” Many of these sites now even allow you to use them within each other — like using your Facebook or Twitter account to log on to Pinterest. Once you start this cross-use, each site can use the data collected on all the other sites. If you use Facebook, when you download a game or another application, the developer of that app. also gets your information. The only way to completely keep your information private — no matter which social media site you use — is to refrain from sighing up, or simply deactivate your account.

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