Ancestry Terms of Service

Have you ever wondered about why Terms of Service, otherwise known as TOS, are a mile long and so confusing that even a lawyer might trip over themselves trying to explain them?

I started with Ancestry over 20 years ago, back when they weren’t even a big player. Over the two decades, they’ve purchased multiple groups and companies, and sold others such as Family Tree Maker, and have become the behemoth they are today.

But have you ever read the TOS? This week** I’ve noticed a banner at the top of each page, highlighting some type of changes to not just their TOS but possibly Community Guidelines too. I’ve had reason in the past to peruse both sets of legalese but nothing detailed, until today. From this, I think I’ll start a series going forward, that delves deeper into each section to highlight concerns or topics that impact each of us, as consumers and customers of We will review various paragraphs, or subsections, and to begin, the first section will be taken out of context, or numerical order, even of Section 2, so please be sure to read the entire section in context. Today we’ll start with Section 2.2.3. which can be found here. **Draft of this post was started 4Aug.

Note: hyperlinks in the copied/pasted section below are there as quoted/linked by

2.2.3 Ownership of Your Content: You own your Personal Information and User Provided Content. You can delete your Personal Information from Ancestry by logging into your Account Settings (for additional information, see the Privacy Statement). So long as your content remains on our system, we need certain rights from you for your and others’ use of the Services. By using the Services, you grant us the right to collect, host, transfer, process, analyze, communicate and store your Personal Information (including your Genetic Information) in order to (a) provide the Services to you and other Users, (b) for the purposes described in these Terms and our Privacy Statement, (c) to help our Users discover more about their families and family histories and build their family trees, and (d) for any other purpose to which you expressly agree, such as sharing with others.

Also, by submitting User Provided Content through any of the Services, you grant Ancestry a perpetual, sublicensable, worldwide, non-revocable, royalty-free license to host, store, copy, publish, distribute, provide access to, create derivative works of, and otherwise use such User Provided Content to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered. This includes the right for Ancestry to copy, display, and index your User Provided Content. Ancestry will own the indexes it creates.

Ancestry TOS, Section 2.2.3. found here.

12Aug21: There has been a change in Ancestry’s position, likely due to customer complaints/concerns, and a “genealogist with a law degree” Judy G Russell, The Legal Genealogist, on 4Aug21 wrote about this here, has memorialized the changes 6Aug21 here. I highly encourage you to read both posts, and save this blog for future reads. I plan on looking her entire blog over in-depth.

25Aug21: Here is another take on the new changes, and like myself, another disgruntled Ancestry customer. The title of the blog post is: Clock is Ticking: In 28 Days, Ancestry CAN DO ANYTHING THEY WANT with Every Image in your tree! It’s well worth the read!

Section 2 is titled Content. The word Content, by a legal definition, c/would include anything you add to your trees on Ancestry, including: names, dates, context such as perhaps a family story, notes, comments, remarks/threads on Message Boards, photos or screenshots you’ve saved to each person’s gallery, as well as your personal content: your personal information for your account, such as name/username, email, phone number, credit card and address, and finally your DNA raw data and notes in your DNA match fields. These are all things you’re contributing to’s server. Then there are the levels of public versus private (searchable and non-searchable), as well as what s/would be considered illegal to publicly display, such as your credit card information. I would also challenge that emails in their messaging program also is legally defined as content, however is believed to have a privacy cover and therefore not subjected to publication in a future database, whether indexed or full. However because it is housed on Ancestry’s servers, they do have full access to your communications (I have confirmed this from countless reported bugs to their Customer Service, Help Desk as well as Corporate Customer Service (not the same as the main CS department). Ancestry has retained these email communications as long as you and the other recipient have not deleted them. You could delete your copy, but unless the recipient also deletes their version, there’s still a working copy. I’d further challenge, there are also the backup copies Ancestry has retained in their servers of all data for data loss prevention measures. In short, this means, once it’s on Ancestry, it will never go away. Public or Private.

So take a moment to think of everything you’ve posted or emailed on Ancestry. This includes your private non-searchable trees. Have you worked on a sensitive family secret, such as an adoption? Or perhaps you discover that one of your family members isn’t a DNA member and you felt if the information was in a private (non-searchable) tree no one could access, that in-fact that data wouldn’t be seen by anyone, including Ancestry? I don’t know about you, but until recently, that was always my understanding of the privacy settings.

W R O N G !!! I say this with a strong warning for what I’m about to explain.

There are 3 tree privacy settings.

1. Public: anyone on or off Ancestry can access your data. Did you know that you can do a Google search and find links back to data in public trees from there? The exception is anyone in a status of “living”. If you’ve marked someone as deceased but don’t include a date, this still will show the person’s data to anyone. They must be “living” and have no date nor location field filled.

2. Private searchable is the minimum privacy setting in order to use AncestryDNA’s Thrulines. This gives Ancestry permission to scan your tree, along with other dna members who have private-searchable or public trees and apply their algorithm to fill in the pieces and give you a possible match of how you are related to someone else.

3. Private non-searchable is what you’d expect that no one has access to, including Ancestry. But think about search results when you’re looking at others trees, and the summary says “private tree-contact member X-name”. That is Ancestry scanning the information of a private non-searchable tree and telling you with minimal information that this persons tree might have the person you’re searching for. Minimal info might be as much as the person’s name and perhaps date and place of birth, if included in the other tree, as long as the person is marked deceased in the other member’s tree. Also, either from DNA matches or profiles, the status of someone’s trees include categories: Tree unavailable or No Trees (no tree), Unlinked tree (DNA not attached to tree), Private unlinked tree (#3 above, with no DNA attached), Private linked tree (#3 above with DNA attached), Private tree, Public linked tree (DNA is attached to tree, and is publicly viewable #1)

For years I’ve been under the belief if I had my tree under private non-searchable, NO one could see my data, let alone be included in a search result along with my tree name, and a link to my profile, only a click to message me for more details. When you see your own profile, the tree name(s) are listed because the view is from your privacy permission it’s your account after all. The only way to change your viewpoint is literally from another account. Even then, you may see updates your account hasn’t yet had or in the reverse, leaving the possibility of seeing apples: apples much lower.

For me, things with this company, the longer the blinders have been off, has disillusioned me about whether or not they have an ounce of morality, let alone concern, for even one of their customers. I believe the answer today is no. But this new change about ‘owning public information forever’ is infuriating. They have a habit of building groups of like-things, such as newspapers, or archived data, or military data, and then separating it slowly from their main site, and building a new company to charge more monthly membership fees for something that was once housed on their original site, Ancestry, and was part of the current membership fee. Don’t believe me? and while not it’s own site, the old Rootsweb was purchased by Ancestry around 2002, and the ‘mailing lists’ we used to subscribe to, and collaborated via emails, was turned into Ancestry’s current “Message Boards” and while FREE when it was Rootsweb, is now behind Ancestry’s paywall. Meaning? If you don’t pay your membership, you can’t see the OLD 20 year old messages (let alone the ‘few’ that use it today).

Since this change has to do with photos, I suspect the new company they’re about to establish is a photo company. I’ll try to come up with some names for them, but in the meantime– can you think of a name they’d use? Based on the other companies, it has to be 1 word! GO!

PS. The only other benefit of Ancestry making this change, is the mad rush of people deleting their photos from the site, this will make more room on their servers, therefore they don’t have to invest in new hardware. Last year at this EXACT same time, they removed all DNA matches between 6-8cms unless you marked, grouped or wrote matches within those parameters. Thankfully some amazing members used their coding skills and make ‘scripts’ for us to save our matches. I ran 3 computers for weeks for our 9 kits (at the time) and managed to save over 100k matches between us. And have since made many CONFIRMED matches. I believe there’s a chance this is why they have the stupid Timber Algorithm too, but hey, if you write a ‘White Paper’ I guess that gives it legitimacy. Oddly, they’re the ONLY DNA company of 5 I personally use, that has this practice.

Until next time…


Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor have a legal background but I did spend much of my career interpreting contracts, both as a rep but also in senior management. All views stated here are my OPINION and in no way meant to imply a legal opinion. I also have an extensive history with this company, as a customer and an advanced end user. I am also able to interpret wording based on ‘literal definition’ as well as common sense, how and why they’d be making such a change.

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