Ownership of Cloud Data

Who Owns Your Data

"You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings.” —Facebook Terms of Service

Despite the advantages of storing one’s data in the cloud, the use of online services and remote storage systems also comes with a number of legal risks. Specifically, the issues of “ownership” and “access” come into play whenever any party (i.e., the cloud service) acts as a custodian for the property (i.e., the data) of another party (i.e., the user). Unfortunately, cloud computing is still a relatively new phenomenon and the legal distinctions about the ownership of personal information and data is not always so clear.

For example, who owns your Facebook profile? You? Or Facebook? Clearly, Facebook hosts your profile and stores the raw data from all of your posts, comments, photos, likes, chat histories, and friend connections on their servers, but does that mean that Facebook owns the information making up all of that data? If asked, most users would expect that the answer is “no,” Facebook does not own their personal data. And fortunately, Facebook agrees, actually. According to their terms of service, individual users “own all of the content and information” that they post on Facebook. But those terms of service also include a number of statements in which, by using the service, you grant Facebook permission to do a number of things with your data that may or not be in your best interest.

Selected excerpts from the Facebook terms of service include the following (emphasis added):

  • You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP [Intellectual Property] content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.

  • You give us permission to use your name, profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us.

  • You permit a business or other entity to pay us to display your name and/or profile picture with your content or information, without any compensation to you.

The terms of service also clarifies, in detail, several more generalized terms that

  • By “information" we mean facts and other information about you, including actions taken by users and non-users who interact with Facebook.

  • By “content" we mean anything you or other users post, provide or share using Facebook Services.

  • By “data" or “user data" or “user’s data" we mean any data, including a user’s content or information that you or third parties can retrieve from Facebook or provide to Facebook through Platform.

  • By “use" we mean use, run, copy, publicly perform or display, distribute, modify, translate, and create derivative works of.

Most other services have similar terms of service statements that specify the rights, limitations, and obligations of both users and the service itself with regard to the user’s data. Each agreement is different and is tailored to the interests of the service that wrote it, which are not always the same as the interests of the users. As a user, it is important to understand what rights and privileges one might be giving up when they agree to use a particular service.


When you sign up for a new service or product, you are often presented with a Terms of Service agreement to read and acknowledge. It is almost always a very long document with a lot of seemingly obscure legalese, so most people skip past it and quickly check the box saying that they have read and agree to the terms when they have not actually read anything. You have probably done it yourself. It is only human to do so. But what exactly are you agreeing to when you do this? What rights might you be giving up? Even if you never read any of these agreements, it is important to understand that the terms that are carefully detailed in each of these agreements directly affect you, your privacy, and your rights to your own content that you create, store, and/or use with the service. More importantly, these agreements usually specify the limits that the service can be held to with regard to what it can do with your data, whether it is on your behalf or in your best interests or not.

In this exercise, you are to select one of the following online cloud services and actually read its Terms of Service agreement to see what such a document includes and then answer the questions below.

Answer the following questions about the Terms of Service that you read:

  1. What restrictions does the service impose on its users?
  2. What permissions does the user grant to the service?
  3. How is the user’s data defined? What does it specifically include? What does it not include?
  4. What are the costs for using the service?
  5. Can the service use the user’s data for its own purposes (e.g., promotion and advertising, making money, etc.)?
  6. What happens to a user’s data if they stop using the service?