Website Terms of Service: Make the Fine Print Work for You

July 23, 2015

This is the fourth post in a series about Internet Law. You can find previous posts in the series here.

There is no question that social media and the internet have revolutionized the way we live, work, and interact with one another. While there is no shortage of heartwarming stories about the power of the Internet to do good for individuals or causes, there are also many stories of people using social media and the Internet to bully, steal others’ content and represent it as their own, and spread rumors, lies and offensive comments.

If someone posts content on a website or service on the Internet that crosses a line, a good first step is to review the company’s terms of service. Terms of service, also known as terms of use,  terms and conditions, user agreement or other like name, are the document(s) and/or policies that defines a user’s rights and obligations while using a site or service. Here are some common examples of situations where terms of service may be violated:

  • An Instagram user copies your photograph and posts it as their own without attribution
  • A Twitter user squats on a username that you have a federal trademark registration for and attempts to sell you the name
  • Someone creates a LinkedIn account that impersonates you or your business
  • A Facebook user posts a threat of physical or financial harm to you or another person
  • A Tumblr user posts abusive content and fraudulent or deceptive links

There may be legal causes of action available to you such as defamation, trademark infringement, copyright infringement, or potentially criminal implications depending on the nature of the content. However, reading and understanding the applicable terms of service could save you time, money and effort if your goal is simply to have the content taken down or reported as a violation. Terms of service are typically easy to understand and identify procedures for achieving these goals and other dispute resolution methods. 

What does “crossing the line” mean? Each company gets to define what constitutes a violation of its terms of service – some companies take a stricter stance, others are more lax. It’s worth noting that the Internet (and pre-Internet) favorite claim that something “violates my right to free speech” is not absolute and only applies to government actors. Therefore, a privately held company may restrict speech or other means of expression in any way they see fit, as long as it doesn’t violate another law.

Here are links to some popular website’s terms of service and related policies:

 Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, Facebook Community Standards

 Twitter Terms of Service, The Twitter Rules

 LinkedIn User Agreement, LinkedIn Professional Community Guidelines

 Instagram Terms of Use, Learn How to Address Abuse

 Tumblr Terms of Service, Community Guidelines

If you need help drafting terms of service for your website or mobile app, or are an individual who would like assistance evaluating your legal rights and responsibilities with respect to an issue that has arisen on the Internet, make sure you contact counsel who is up to speed on the fast paced and evolving practice of Internet Law.

Matt Landis is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and works regularly with Internet users trying to make sense of it all. In his spare time, Matt enjoys reading terms of service and end user license agreements; his current favorite is the iTunes Terms and Conditions.