Facebook in plain English = ‘Big Brother’

It’s personal: in the USA, 91% think we have lost control of how companies collect our data.

Is Facebook trying to manipulate our free will? The children’s commissioner for England has translated the site’s terms and conditions into simple text to expose its “Big Brother” tactics.

Do you remember the day that you signed up to Facebook? What about Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat?

Did you know that all of those companies are tracking your location? Or that they can use and edit any photos or videos that you upload without telling or paying you? Or pass your information along to advertisers?

Probably not – but they all told you that they were going to do it. And, if you use those sites, you agreed. The information is found in the lengthy terms and conditions (T&Cs) when you sign up. But very few people read them before they click “accept”.

That is why, today, the children’s commissioner for England is publishing a simplified version of Facebook’s T&Cs.

Commissioner Anne Longfield says most young people are “astounded by what is in there… Kids never like the idea that someone can track where they are.”

The simplified rules highlight the vast amount of information given away to Facebook every day. The company has the right to track information about everything from your card details to your phone’s battery strength.

As for photos, “Officially you own any original images and videos you post,” the simplified T&Cs explain, “but Facebook can use them however it wants to and we don’t have to pay you any money for that.”

Facebook is also constantly tracking your likes, dislikes and status updates; the articles that you click on and the posts that you share; the amount of time that you spend on the site and what you are doing while you are on it. All of this data is then processed by its powerful algorithm.

This is how Facebook is able to display the updates from the friends you are closest to, or the websites you most enjoy. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has boasted that his site is like a “personalised newspaper”. But others have argued that it is helping to create echo chambers and spread fake news.


Franklin Foer, who recently wrote a book about technology’s influence, goes further. He argues that Facebook’s algorithms “are meant to erode free will, to relieve humans of the burden of choosing, to nudge them in the right direction”. Its engineers are open about the fact that they are constantly trying to tweak the behaviour of Facebook users, such as by encouraging them to vote. But this is a dangerous road to go down. We must start claiming back some of our rights to privacy.

“That is an overreaction,” say others. It is good that the children’s commissioner is raising awareness of what Facebook wants from us. But as long as we are careful, we can use the site without allowing it to control our lives. We are still individuals capable of making up our own minds; the idea that a website can take away our free will is absurd.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever read, or tried to read, a list of terms and conditions?
  2. Is Facebook killing free will?


  1. The graphic above includes a simplified extract from the simplified T&Cs. Simplify it for a third time by summarising the information in a single sentence.
  2. Imagine you have created a new social media platform that aims to protect people’s privacy. Write a list of bullet points explaining what information the company will, and will not, track.

Some People Say...

“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer – you’re the product.”

Andrew Lewis

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Facebook’s T&Cs were translated into plain English for the children’s commissioner by the law firm Schillings. They will be made available to teachers by TES resources, and you can read them by clicking on the third link under Become An Expert. Although Facebook is still the most popular social media platform, in August a report by eMarketer found that usage among 12 to 17–year-olds will drop by around 3% in the UK and USA this year.
What do we not know?
Whether knowing Facebook’s terms and conditions affects how much young people use Facebook. The same eMarketer report found that teenagers are migrating to Snapchat and Instagram, but the reasons for this are unknown. It could be that Snapchat’s ephemeral nature is attractive – or simply that too many adults are on Facebook.

Word Watch

They are able to do this using the location data from your smartphone, if you have downloaded their apps.
Use and edit
Facebook’s description: “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license” to your intellectual property.
Very few
In March, a study by York University in Toronto and the University of Connecticut confirmed this. When registering for a fake social media platform in an experiment, only a quarter of students looked at the T&Cs. Even then, it was only for a minute. In the end, they all agreed – even though the T&Cs had asked them to give up their firstborn child.
Children’s commissioner
An official position, independent of government or Parliament, to speak up for the rights of children in Britain.
Echo chambers
Only seeing content that you agree with.
Fake news
Untrue stories, often intended to sway political opinions.
World Without Mind, published by Jonathan Cape.
A series of instructions and calculations for computers to follow when making decisions (such as what to show on a newsfeed). Facebook’s algorithm contains 60m lines of code.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.