There exists, in the faraway mountains of most likely Peru, a man who has read every term and every condition before clicking and ticking that infamous little box. “I have read and agreed to the terms and conditions,” says the little box and the man, destining them both to live happily ever after.
For the rest of us schmucks, however, “I-have-read-the-terms-and-conditions” is the greatest and most frequent lie we ever tell.
“Many of us don’t read terms and conditions because they are often long and difficult to understand,” says Pam Cowburn, the communications director of the Open Rights Group, an organisation that raises awareness of digital rights. “Companies can do a lot more to make T&Cs shorter and clearer. It’s especially important that we can understand how our data is going to be used and shared.”
Cowburn warns that the phrasing of T&C agreements can be difficult to dissect and, in particular, some terms can obscure exactly how companies use your private information. “Catch-all phrases that permit using data ‘to improve services’ should not be exploited to allow companies to get covert consent for data analysis that benefits them more than the customer,” she says.
With that in mind, here is a rundown of some of the things that you may have unwittingly agreed to in the not-so-fine print.
You have signed away your right to sue
Many popular sites and apps – including Amazon, Snapchat and Instagram – have what is called an “arbitration clause”, which obliges you to settle any disputes with them out of court. This means you waive your right to a jury trial and have to resolve disputes by arbitration instead, ie, you must meet to discuss your arguments in front of a third-party arbiter.
Arbitration is very expensive, and it also stops you from joining forces with other complainants to form a class-action lawsuit.
You have licensed away all of your content and pictures
Let’s say Twitter wanted to use your latest selfie in an advertising campaign about how wonderful their eggy little offering is. They’d have to ring you up, pay you a bucketload of money, and get you to sign on the dotted line, right? Nope.
Twitter can make any content you upload “available to other companies, organisations, or individuals for the syndication, broadcast, distribution, promotion or publication of such Content” and say that its usage “may be made with no compensation paid to you”. This applies not just to your selfies, but to any content you upload – including, as Snapchat helpfully outlines in its terms, “your name, likeness, or voice”.
Twitter and Snapchat are not alone, however. Though many social media companies take pains to say that you own the content you post to their sites, they – including Facebook and Instagram – often say that by agreeing to their T&Cs you are granting them licence to use your content. Not only can they use it – they can often use it however they like.
You’ve allowed Facebook to track you across the web
Facebook admits in its terms of service that it will “collect information when you visit or use third-party websites and apps that use our Services”. This means that when you visit any website or app that includes a Facebook “Like” button – and many, if not most, do – Facebook can collect information about how you use these sites.
Many sites such as Twitter and Snapchat can also use geo-tagging to track your movements in real life, too.
You have agreed not to hold Twitter responsible for fake news
Though many T&Cs outline that you will not hold a website or social network responsible for any offensive or upsetting content you see on its services, Twitter goes a step further. “We do not endorse, support, represent or guarantee the completeness, truthfulness, accuracy, or reliability of any Content or communications posted via the Services or endorse any opinions expressed via the Services,” it writes.
You have willingly handed over most of your personal information
We’ve got so used to chucking all of our personal details into the latest social network that perhaps you won’t even blink at this revelation. Still, it is important to realise that more often than not you are granting companies the right to use and share your personal information for marketing purposes.
Again, many are apathetic about this, but when we examine the specifics, things become more troubling. For example, if you have ever used Facebook or Instagram’s “friend finding” services, then they may have access to your phone contacts. Snapchat – which has very transparent policy wording – admits to retaining “how you communicate with other Snapchatters, such as their names, the time and date of your communications, the number of messages you exchange with your friends, which friends you exchange messages with the most, and your interactions with messages”.
Not even your Twitter Direct Messages are sacred, as the company admits it “store[s] and process[es] your communications, and information related to them”.
And many sites will use this to dob you in to the law
Though it might seem fair that companies will share your information in response to legal requests (such as court orders or search warrants), some go further. Facebook will also share your information if it has “a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so”. What does this mean? Exactly.
You have agreed to let companies remove your content at any time, for any reason
Social media giants don’t have to give a reason to delete your stuff or boot you off their sites, and even Netflix reserves the right to restrict your access to its service if it feels like it. Instagram also notches it up a level by claiming: “We reserve the right to force forfeiture of any username for any reason.” You better hope a future-famous-person isn’t being dashed with holy water and christened with your name at this very moment.
You have accepted that you may not be able to delete your account properly
Even though many companies can delete you and your stuff willy-nilly, some sites and services reserve the right to retain your information even after you delete your account. Instagram, for instance, admits that after you deactivate your account, it and “its Affiliates, or its Service Providers may retain information (including your profile information) and User Content”. YouTube “may retain, but not display, distribute or perform, services copies of your content that you have removed or deleted”. And Facebook retains a licence on your images unless your content has been deleted by your Friends, too.
You have also agreed to some pretty weird stuff
There are a few unique clauses in certain T&Cs that might not be terrifying but are nonetheless worthy of a raised eyebrow. For example:
- On Instagram, “You must not use domain names or web URLs in your username without prior written consent”
- Also on Instagram, “You acknowledge that we may not always identify paid services, sponsored content, or commercial communications as such.”
- On Snapchat you agree never to Snap and drive, but also to “never put yourself or others in harm’s way just to capture a Snap”. And . . .
- Never “create more than 1 account for yourself”.
- Skype’s “Brand Guidelines” say you must not link to skype.com in a way that “damage[s] our reputation”.