Wither thou goest, Ancestry?

On Tuesday, 3rd August 2021, I and many other Ancestry users received an email advising me that Ancestry were updating their Privacy Policy.

On 4th August, the news reached the #Genealogy community on Twitter, resulting in a kind of virtual ‘meltdown’ by concerned genealogists and family historians. But why?

The implications of the update to @Ancestry’s ToC were the subject of a short item by Judy G Russell on her Blog (follow the link to read her take on it), resulting in an outcry by many in the community, because as Judy explains, the change means that, in effect, Ancestry can now use your uploaded content (photos, stories, etc.) in any way they see fit, for evermore – without your express permission.

As a result, several users have stated their intention to immediately remove their photos, others have said they will cancel their subscriptions and delete their trees (one hopes they will at least download a Gedcom file of the content they have so painstakingly amassed over the years, to use offline) because they are horrified by the idea that Ancestry may use their content for advertising, perhaps even to their financial gain.

I will admit, that my first, knee-jerk reaction was ‘How dare they?!’. But then I got to thinking about it. Why do we create family trees? Why do we share our personal images online, share our ancestors stories? For me, it is all about putting my ancestor’s images and information out there in the hope that they might reach a distant and unknown relation searching for ancestors and their extended families. I -and I suspect the vast majority of Ancestry users – do NOT put my media up there in the hope of making money out of it… but if Ancestry decides one day to use one of my images in an advertisement or a blog or other commercial content, why would I mind? Might it not even help fellow family historians/researcher to find another ancestor? If the images are not named, no harm or foul. If they are named or written about, that’s fine by me – perhaps a distant cousin might see it and realise the name is one they’ve been researching….

If people are uploading content to Ancestry that they don’t want anyone to see, well… why? Surely the whole idea is to make connections? How will getting in a snit because ancestry might just use one of your images in a peice of advertising or a blog harm that goal? I don’t think it will. I don’t particularly care if Ancestry might gain a thousand or ten thousand new subscribers by using some of my content – anything that draws new users to the site, who might have links to a distant family member of mine, is fine by me.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that anyone who now wants to remove their content is in the wrong – it’s their choice, just as it is mine to leave my content up. But I do think that by removing material that others might have been delighted to discover at some point, it is rather at odds with the whole idea of having a tree in the first place.

I feel very sad about those discoveries that now may never be made because someone didn’t like the idea that Ancestry now has perpetual rights to use their uploaded content for Ancestry’s own use. I state on my Ancestry Bio, and I always say to new Ancestry contacts, please feel free to use anything on my tree that is of interest to you, and I greatly appreciate all those photos uploaded by distant cousins that I’ve been able to add to my own tree in return- it is such a huge pleasure to put a face to what was previously just a name and a series of dates… to be able to see family likenesses stretching across the generations. To look into the eyes of the 3 x great grandparent via an image someone else was kind enough to share. Oh, I do realise that some will still share images privately if messaged, but how will people cope with the possibility of message after message of people looking for images that were previously freely available to see, share and use? And many people will be put off by having to ask, I suspect.

So please, do think long and hard before you remove your images and stories… does making it inaccessible to people who might be related to you, feel like the right thing to do? In a way, we don’t even exclusively ‘own’ our ancestors, we share them with thousands of other people. That is why I will continue to share my photographs and stories on Ancestry, regardless.

Elaine Jackson 5th August 2021

What do YOU think of Ancestry’s decision to avail themselves of your uploaded content on Ancestry? Will it affect what you share on your tree?

8 replies »

  1. This will be an unpopular opinion, but the Ancestry fuss strikes me the same as the Facebook users who complain that their information is being ‘harvested.’ Well … DUH! Of course it is. You are using a commercial company’s website to freely post information (records, photos, articles, etc) and therefore one shouldn’t be terribly surprised when the company wants to use the info you post to entice more users. If users want control over their content, then they need to pay for their own web-domain (such as the owner of has done). As an aside, I will add that I do wish wasn’t so expensive as I do think they’re fleecing users, but it is our choice to pay or go elsewhere. I seem to recall that the records on are free to search and use.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for responding! This is kind of my impression, too – and, as, stated in my blog, surely the aim is to reach new cousins-several-times-removed,and to share our knowledge (and images) for the interest of others who may be related to us… at least, that’s how it is for me. I personally don’t think Ancestry is THAT expensive, really – if you work it out per week, it’s not bad (unless you don’t use it much, in which case, suspend your subscription and pay on a month-by-month basis when you feel the urge to research again – your family tree will still be there when you return). For UK users, I think Ancestry is still the best family tree platform, especially for DNA matches. I have found so many 2nd, 3rd & 4th (and more distant) cousins on both my own and my husband’s side, and talking (and even meeting!) them has expanded our knowledge of the shared family enormously. I can’t feel precious about my family and ancestor photos – I don’t own the people in them, and they may be shared memories with many other relations I haven’t yet met. For me, coming across a photograph of a distant relation I’ve never seen before is a wonderful experience, and I cannot -and will not- attach a monetery value to that. I literally don’t care if Ancestry make money from them, because I am not aiming to. And anyway, I still own the photo, and the copyright, so I can also do what I wish with them, including putting them in a book and selling it should I ever wish to. Whatever Ancestry does with ‘my’ original images does not change what I can do with them. Of course I accept that it is a personal choice, and each to their own, but I can’t pretend to understand why anyone trying to find information about their ancestors and unknown relations would ever want to hide them from freely avaialable public view just because Ancestry might (and that’s a big might) want to use them in advertising someday. Anyway, thanks for your input, much appreciated! 🙂


  2. I understand what you are saying
    But some people, maybe adopted, have reasons to want to keep things private, while still trying to find their ancestors. There is no indication that private trees will be treated any differently, and that is a concern.


    • Hi Sally, thank you for your comment. I understand what you’re saying about the idea that private trees may not be the exception regarding Ancestry’s use of images – and I do think they need to clarify this, and soon. But I think it quite unlikely that adoptees will, in the main, HAVE any photos of their ancestors to be worried about – surely that is the whole reason they are on there, to find relations/ancestors? It is after all ONLY the images we are talking about here, not the details of people on a tree that someone wants to keep private because it may be sensitive information. At least, as I understand it. 🙂


  3. Leaving aside altruistic motives like sharing family details with other genealogists, the problem with Ancestry’s proposals is that they will be able to do anything with data posted on their site. This includes old photos which can command a high price from companies such as Getty Images. Is this a means of boosting Ancestry’s already considerable assets?


    • Hi Diana, thanks for your comment! 🙂 I have to be honest and say, well if this is a means of ‘boosting Ancestry’s already considerable assetts’, does it actually matter? I mean, surely that would only mean more funds for Ancestry to improve the site for users? And if those images command a high price from, say, Getty, what is to stop US selling our old photos to Getty? We own the original image and therefore the copyright, so we can do the same if we want to. Most users are not in it to make money from their ancestor’s images, but Ancestry using our images commercially does not in any way stop us from doing so should we wish to.


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