Every so often, a rash of identical posts starts to take over social media. This isn’t the work of bots, but the result of a number of people believing that these words will have an effect on the terms of service of Facebook, or, in this most recent case, Instagram. In fact, there is nothing you can post online that will change a social network’s terms of service. And currently, Instagram’s terms aren’t even changing in the first place.
Here’s how this goes: people hear there is going to be a change to a company’s terms of service. It usually takes the form of “there’s going to be a new rule that means Instagram owns the copyright of my pictures.” It’s often not even true—there is no new rule. These companies do require users to license—not give—user-posted content to them so that companies can share them. On all of the major social media platforms, users keep the copyrights in the photos and videos they create and upload. No major platform has ever had terms of service that claim to transfer users’ copyrights. But in response to the rumor, a bunch of people start posting a paragraph of legal-ish sounding words that, talisman-like, they believe will prevent this thing that isn’t even happening.
It happened with Facebook in 2012, when people started posting this:
For those of you who do not understand the reasoning behind this posting, Facebook is now a publicly traded entity. Unless you state otherwise, anyone can infringe on your right to privacy once you post to this site. It is recommended that you and other members post a similar notice as this, or you may copy and paste this version. If you do not post such a statement once, then you are indirectly …allowing public use of items such as your photos and the information contained in your status updates.
PRIVACY NOTICE: Warning - any person and/or institution and/or Agent and/or Agency of any governmental structure including but not limited to the United States Federal Government also using or monitoring/using this website or any of its associated websites, you do NOT have my permission to utilize any of my profile information nor any of the content contained herein including, but not limited to my photos, and/or the comments made about my photos or any other “picture” art posted on my profile.
You are hereby notified that you are strictly prohibited from disclosing, copying, distributing, disseminating, or taking any other action against me with regard to this profile and the contents herein. The foregoing prohibitions also apply to your employee, agent, student or any personnel under your direction or control.
The contents of this profile are private and legally privileged and confidential information, and the violation of my personal privacy is punishable by law. UCC 1-103 1-308 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED WITHOUT PREJUDICE
The law cited there has nothing to do with any of this, but it certainly sounds convincing. This was so prevalent it has a Snopes entry. (Snopes rates it “false.”)
Facebook got hit again with this kind of hoax again in 2015, with one that looked like this, typo and all:
In response to the new Facebook guidelines, I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc (as a result of the Berner Convention).
There is no Berner Convention. There is a Berne Convention, but it doesn’t do what this notice claims. Sometimes the notice mentioned a “Rome Convention,” which still does not grant the post magic legal powers.
This brings us to 2019, where Instagram finds itself in the same place as its parent company Facebook once did. Here, via Forbes, is a version of this same story floating around:
This isn’t how privacy or copyright law works. This isn’t how contract law, which governs your relationship with a company’s terms of service, works. And it does not matter that Judd Apatow, Julia Roberts, Usher, or Secretary of Energy Rick Perry all fell for it.
While this phenomenon has been called a hoax, a scam, and a new iteration of the chain letter, it’s also something like a superstition. People are legitimately concerned about the power of giant companies like Facebook, and it’s kind of believable that it’d be able to make these kinds of rules and you, the user, would be stuck with them. Thinking there must be some legal way out of this unequal relationship—that the law wouldn’t let one company act with impunity in this way—isn’t so irrational. And so these words keep popping up and, since there was no change in the first place, they seem to “work” and do no harm—like knocking on wood—so everyone forgets for a couple of years.
Perhaps if there were many competing services, we could choose the one with the policies that best protected us, but, until then, there are no magic words that a viral post can have that will change the terms of service you agree to by using Instagram. Perhaps the influential people who've fallen for this hoax should instead focus on ways to bring much-needed competition to Internet platforms.