The Manipulation of Images, as Personal Data, by Facebook – a Case Study for Ethical Approach


Are you familiar with Meta’s terms & conditions and how they manipulate and use your personal data? In the below article we will focus on a narrow aspect of Facebook’s recent rebranding to Meta and how it relates to the use of images on their platform. While there is extensive literature on the ethical standards of marketing on social media networks, this article will only address the specific issue of how Meta explains the use of images, particularly those containing personal data such as a person’s face. It is important to note that images on Facebook can be considered personal data, and within this article we will explore possible ethical issues surrounding their use, particularly in relation to Meta’s terms of business. To be more specific, the terms “Facebook” and “Meta” will be used interchangeably in this article.

The revenues of Meta based on users’ images

The usage of user’s images to generate revenue from advertisers by Meta is not fully explained in business terms. However, by carefully reading, the personal data, including images, is used to determine which ads will be shown to users.[1] Moreover, Facebook’s terms & conditions state that businesses and organizations pay to show ads to users[2] and that personal data is used to determine the relevancy of these ads[3].  However, the language used in the terms & conditions is vague, and it is not clear how much choice the users have in the ads they see.

Facebook is also claiming not to share personal data without permission[4], but it is unclear how users can give this permission or how it is obtained.

It is also unclear whether a sale of personal data is taking place or not[5]. Greater transparency is needed to ensure an ethical approach to show how they handle the user’s data.

Terminology and users’ knowledge – a matter of ethical concern

The statement presented in Facebook’s terms of use regarding users’ ownership of their intellectual property is problematic and potentially misleading[6]. This statement fails to consider situations where the creator’s intellectual property rights over their creation may belong to someone else or a group of co-creators, such as through an agreement or work-for-hire arrangement.

Additionally, Facebook’s terms imply that users can control the use and sharing of their content, by stating “nothing in these Terms takes away the rights you have to your own content”, but they exclude any responsibility or duty to delete images that have been re-shared by others.[7]

From an ethical standpoint, Facebook should be more transparent with its users about these situations. For example, Facebook should explain that under certain circumstances, images posted by their lawful owner can no longer be deleted. They should also clarify that users are allowed to share their own copyrighted material, but it is highly recommended to obtain clearance first, as images may contain the rights of other people.

Facebook’s business terms use legal jargon that may be difficult for untrained users to understand. For example, the statement “we need you to give us some legal permissions” is unclear and should instead be phrased more simply, such as “you must agree to”. Additionally, the statement suggests that Facebook only requires “some” permissions, when in fact, it is a complete and unlimited royalty-free license that is being granted.

The connection between the full free license and the need to provide and improve Facebook’s products and services is not clearly explained[8] and an explanation is needed to link the license to the fact that Facebook uses users’ content to display personalized advertising, generating revenues for Facebook.

Furthermore, the terms of use do not clearly explain that the license granted is not for an unlimited period of time, and that each new upload of content generates a new unlimited license, which must be terminated by deleting the content.  The terms of use need to be more specific in this regard, as they treat the content as a whole, rather than addressing each individual upload[9].

Loss of control and loss of rights over the images

One significant consequence of uploading content to a public account is the loss of control and rights over the images. When a user uploads an image, the license allows Meta or any user in the user’s friend group to use and reshare the image without the initial user’s exclusive control. This loss of control occurs in two steps, where the user uploads the image, and Meta is granted a license, followed by the public or the user’s friend group receiving a sub-license from Meta. Even if the user deletes the image, the sub-license remains in force, allowing the group to continue using the image[10].

The terms and conditions allow for this two-step technique, represented in the footnote,  by granting Meta a non-exclusive license to use, modify, distribute, create derivative works, and publicly display the user’s content. The license will end when the user deletes the content, but there is a contradiction in the explanation of which content needs to be deleted by whom. The technical language used to describe the rights granted to Meta is insufficiently explained for easy user understanding, particularly the right to create derivative works, which allows Meta to modify the image and claim ownership of the resulting new work.

To be more transparent, the terms and conditions should break down the various components of the license granted to Meta and provide clear examples of the license’s real extent. For example, if a user uploads a picture of themselves in a certain place, Meta can modify the image by turning it black and white, adding text and graphical elements, and claim ownership of the new work, which the user has no more copyright over. This license allows Meta to use the new image as they see fit, whether for commercial or non-commercial use.

If the user would think “money”

Meta provides extensive details on the commercial use of a user’s images, which is a positive aspect. This enables Meta to present similar advertisements to the user’s friends. Although this practice aims to generate more revenue for Meta based on social resemblance, it could also result in revenue for the user. However, the fact that users will not receive any compensation is mentioned briefly and in a secondary manner: “without any compensation to you”. According to the terms of service, users grant permission for Meta to use their name, profile picture, and information about their actions with ads and sponsored content in connection with advertisements, offers, and other sponsored content without any compensation.

Updates – an ethical improvement is needed

An ethical improvement is necessary for updates to Meta’s platform. It’s a challenging task to keep a large platform like Meta updated and running smoothly, and there are always things that need improvement. It’s understandable that Meta wants to obtain efficient approval for its updates, as obtaining individual approvals from each user can be complicated. However, it’s important that users are given the opportunity to review updates before agreeing to them. A more ethical approach would be to block account access until the user checks a box stating that they have read and agreed to the latest version of the terms. Otherwise, the user can continue using the products without realizing that they have agreed to a new version of the terms[11].



The analysis conducted above has revealed several ethical concerns surrounding the Terms and Conditions used by Meta. Vague terms such as “we” and “we need you to give us” have been used repeatedly, which lack clarity and leave room for interpretation. The Terms and Conditions are not drafted under any clear laws, making it uncertain which laws apply when the use of a picture by others becomes questionable. Moreover, the unilateral modification of the terms is in favor of Meta, and there is a lack of clarity in explaining the user’s agreement to such modifications.

One significant issue is that users are not fully aware that their rights over uploaded pictures can be lost and used by third parties without financial compensation. Although Meta claims that users can withdraw and delete their content, the sub-licensing agreement makes this ineffective. The financial advantage of Meta is not transparently explained, as there seems to be a contradiction between the right to sub-license granted to Meta and the user’s renunciation of any compensation. Meta claims not to sell user data, such as images, but is paid by vendors for sending analytics of the relationship between user behavior and their images.

To address these concerns, a framework for possible solutions is required. First, a clear explanation of technical terms should be provided at the beginning of any account opening, along with a disclosure that a specialized person with experience in intellectual property should review the agreement for full understanding. More explanations and examples should be given where legal definitions are involved, such as the grant of a non-exclusive license to Meta, or the mechanism for updating terms.

It is also important to inform users that uploaded pictures can no longer be controlled by them or by Meta after they are posted and shared. A friendly warning before uploading images, along with a training quiz to assess the user’s understanding of the risks involved in sharing pictures, could help to keep clients aware of the handling of pictures on the platform in a fair and ethical manner.



[1] “By using our Products, you agree that we can show you ads that we think will be relevant to you and your interests. We use your personal data to help determine which ads to show you.” (Terms, Introduction)

[2] “Businesses and organizations pay us to show you ads for their products and services” (Terms, Introduction)

[3] “We use your personal data to help determine which ads to show you.” (Terms, Introduction)

[4] , “We use your personal data to help determine which ads to show you.” (Terms, Introduction)

[5] “We don’t sell your personal data, and don’t share information (…) unless you give us specific permission” (Terms, Introduction)

[6] “You own the intellectual property rights (things such as copyright or trademarks) in any such content that you create and share on Facebook and other Meta Company Products you use. Nothing in these Terms takes away the rights you have to your own content. You are free to share your content with anyone else, wherever you want.” (Terms, 3.3 Permissions you give us).

[7] “Your content has been used by others in accordance with this license and they have not deleted it (in which case, this license will continue to apply until that content is deleted).” (Terms, 3.3 Permissions you give us)

[8]  “This is solely for the purposes of providing and improving our Products and services as described in Section 1 above.” (Terms, 3.3 Permissions you give us)

[9] “This license will end when your content is deleted from our systems. You can delete content individually or all at once by deleting your account.” (Terms, 3.3 Permissions you give us)

[10] A. Specifically, when you share, post or upload content that is covered by intellectual property rights on or in connection with our Products, you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate and create derivative works of your content (consistent with your privacy and application settings). This means, for example, that if you share a photo on Facebook, you give us permission to store, copy and share it with others (again, consistent with your settings) such as service providers that support our service or other Meta Products you use. This license will end when your content is deleted from our systems. (Terms, 3.3 Permissions you give us)

B. When you delete content, it’s no longer visible to other users; however, it may continue to exist elsewhere on our systems where: (…) your content has been used by others in accordance with this license and they have not deleted it (in which case, this license will continue to apply until that content is deleted); (Terms, 3 Permissions you give us).

[11] “Once any updated Terms are in effect, you will be bound by them if you continue to use our Products.” (Terms, 4. Limits)

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