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Who Owns Your Online Genealogy Information?


A significant number of genealogists store personal genealogy information online. This raises an interesting question: Who owns the information you post online? In some cases, the information is actually owned by the internet site where the information is posted regardless of who posted the information.

There are three main ways in which data generated by genealogists may find its way online: through family tree programs that store personal information on centralized databases, through the results of genetic genealogy tests and through social networking sites. Facebook, the largest social networking forum is the latest internet site to attempt to take control of personal data. First mentioned on the blog The Consumerist, and subsequently picked up by the New York Times, Facebook quietly attempted to revise their Terms and Conditions to give themselves what appeared to be unlimited rights to any user’s personal Facebook postings. They backed down a few days later and went back to their previous Terms and Conditions, but only because there was intense public opposition to their plans.

On the internet, there is always a tradeoff between wanting to make information available to friends and family and wanting to protect personal privacy. Unfortunately, many genealogists often fail to recognize how much personal privacy they may be giving up on the internet? For example, can you remove family tree information once it is posted on the internet? Who owns the rights to the data from the results of genetic genealogy tests? What happens if you want to remove a comment you posted on a genealogy web site or blog? Are the Privacy Statements and Terms and Conditions clearly posted? What do they say? Are there even Privacy Statements and Terms and Conditions? These are the kinds of questions that genealogists often do not ask themselves.

Social networking sites can be particularly challenging places for an individual to attempt to maintain privacy. Consider the following not-so-hypothetical example of how someone’s privacy can be inadvertently breached: you are careful with your online profile to not mention too many personal details about yourself. Now, along comes a friend, who posts the following comment: ‘It’s your 60th birthday on Tuesday. Let’s go out and celebrate this weekend.’ Seems innocuous enough? Not really. By looking at the timestamp of the posting, anyone could easily back calculate to figure out your date of birth. Now, a valuable piece of personal information is suddenly in the public domain. This is a relatively simple example, but it shows how easily someone’s privacy can be violated on a social network site. Google has written a fascinating white paper on privacy concerns on social networking sites. Definitely a good read for any genealogist thinking about these issues.

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