Whenever we are offered something for free, especially by large companies, we have to ask ourselves, “what is in it for them?”

While browsing Facebook recently on a mobile phone, the writer received an offer from his mobile service provider (“the Service Provider”), to use a new product of theirs – called “Facebook Flex”. Facebook Flex allows you, the customer, to access Facebook for free anytime, without data charges. For many of us, our phones are largely used to access different social media applications, and accordingly, browsing Facebook might constitute a large chunk of Service Providers’ bread and butter.

The question then arises “What is in it for them?”

The answer presented itself to me on the Facebook Flex Terms and Conditions, available on the Service Provider’s website.

As very few people will ever take the time to read the fine print, we wish to show you what you are paying for the Service Provider’s latest ‘free’ service.

Simply put, the Service Provider gives you data, you give them information. The operative clauses of the Terms and Conditions read as follows:

  • “Using the Facebook Flex service would mean customers grant [the Service Provider] permission to give Facebook periodic access to their cellphone number
  • The use of the Facebook Flex service would also mean that customers grant Facebook the right to share their information with [the Service Provider].”

Terms and Conditions are a contract, and by using Facebook Flex, you bind yourself to the contract. The first clause of the Terms and Conditions are clearly understandable. The Service Provider may now give Facebook your cellphone number. For what purpose we cannot know, but it surely will not mean that your phone is going to ring less.

Clause 2 of the Terms and Conditions are very vaguely put. Facebook are allowed to share the customer’s information with the Service Provider.

  • They give no detail as to which information Facebook will share with the Service Provider.
  • The duration of the period during which information will be shared is not stipulated.
  • The Service Provider makes no indication as to how the information will be used.

We all make ourselves guilty of entering into contracts without looking at the fine print. This is very often the case with online agreements, where terms and conditions are not expressly brought to our attention before we click “I Agree”. Unfortunately for the lay person, these terms and conditions are very often worded in legalese – being formal and technical jargon used by lawyers.

However, if you click “I Agree”, or use a service such as Facebook Flex without reading the Terms and Conditions, it does not mean that they do not apply to you, regardless of whether you would have been able to understand them. You have now given Facebook permission to share your information with the Service Provider. This becomes also very important with the commencement of the Protection of Personal Information Act, we are told, is imminent.

The moral of the story is that before agreeing to use any service, be sure to make an attempt to read the small print, Terms and Conditions or similar contract which you agree to by your use of the service. If you cannot understand the Terms and Conditions, do not use the service.

No amount of free data is worth giving up your privacy.

For information on the interpretation and drafting of contracts, contact Cindy Jonker in the Corporate and Commercial Department at Goldberg & de Villiers Inc on (041) 501 9806 or cindy@goldlaw.co.za.

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