Thursday, February 13, 2014

Reading Between the Lines: Privacy Agreements

Screen Shot taken 12 February 2014
Do you ever wonder what it is that you agree to when you check that box saying you have read and agree to the terms of service in order to continue the sign in process to a website? Well, the greater part of social media users do not take the time to read what they are agreeing to. Agreeing to the terms of service without reading it, is like a signing a hard document without reading it over and knowing exactly what you are signing, most likely you would never do that. We are agreeing to things like having our images shared without our knowledge, and having them sold to other companies without compensation. Although, most of us do not take the time, it’s not always our fault that we don’t read the fine print. Most of it’s written in hard, lawyer-like language that the average user does not understand. Not only is it an issue with adult users not understanding what it’s saying, but the majority of social media users are between the ages of 13-17(Gizmodo), and kids surely can not understand the difficult way the terms of service are written. This issue has led to many social media companies, like Facebook and Instagram, to revise their terms of service for the average user to understand. Now, there is no excuse for not reading them before you agree. We need national legislation to demand for simpler worded terms of service that every age of users are able to understand because there have been many misunderstandings between users and social media companies. Although, some companies have voluntarily edited their terms of service because it has come out that they are allowed to share everything from passwords to images with other social media companies, it would be more convenient for the terms of service to be stated in simpler words in the first place.

Instagram has taken into consideration the complexity of their terms of service, and they have gone back and added an additional set of terms of service agreements, as of January 2013, that are more appropriate for the majority of their users. Bits reports, the simpler terms of service are ideas like, “you may not post violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos or other content via the Service," and “you are responsible for keeping your password secret and secure.” The article goes on to say, the terms also include clauses like “Instagram can share information about its users with Facebook, its parent company, as well as outside affiliates and advertisers.” This is an essential piece to add because there was confusion, that USA Today reported, with users thinking that Instagram was “going to sell their photos to other companies without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing.” The confusion stems from users not reading the terms of service carefully, and Instagram hopes to eliminate this problem by adding the easy to read terms of service.

Instagram with it’s 175 million users, Facebook is trying to sort out a similar issue with their terms of service. Facebook’s confusion came from information that was hiding in their terms of service. It came out, as the New York Times reports, the company reversed changes to its contract with users that had appeared to give it perpetual ownership of their contributions to the service. Unlike Instagram, Facebook did include this important piece of information, but people not taking the time to read the terms of service resulted in a misunderstanding between the company and its users. Facebook was scrambling around trying to figuring out how to fix the issue. One of the solutions was announced by the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, that they have invited users to contribute to the “Bill of Rights” and responsibilities of using Facebook. Their overall goal is to get the information out in the open so every user knows exactly what is happening with posted information. The New York Times reports that Facebook’s chief privacy officer made clear that the company “became very concerned and wanted to communicate very clearly to everyone our intentions by rolling back to the old terms of service.” The issue of Facebook's terms of service took place in 2009, but as of November 2013 The New York Times reports that "official changes to its privacy policies that make the terms of using Facebook more clear than ever."  Facebook has made it clear to it's users that they are permitted to use any posting and images for advertising.  If users would have been aware of Facebook’s terms of service in the first place, then the issue of rules and regulations being hidden would have been avoided completely.

Although Instagram and Facebook are going through major changes with their terms of service documents, and users are blaming the companies for complicated terms of use, at some point common sense needs to come into play. Users should have the responsibility and the maturity not to post “violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos or other content.” This not only applies to the adult users, but parents of users who are under the age of 18 should be involved and should be aware of their child’s use on social media, then the responsibility of keeping it clean is not up to companies like Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook and Instagram are two examples of companies that have gone back and revised their terms of service agreements because issue of unclarity for their users. As I have stated before, if the terms of service were stated in simple language in the first place, clarity between the company and it’s users would have been there in the first place. A solution to solve the problem of unclear agreements would be for national legislative to be passed so it would be a law for the terms of service to be written in simple language for everyone to understand.


Working on the blog project was an eye opening experience because I was doing research on a topic that is so important, and one that I actually knew little about.  Before researching, and proving the point that there needs to be national legislation to demand for simpler worded terms of service that every age of users are able to understand, I did not truly understand why this issue was important, when signing up for new programs or services I would freely check the box "yes" saying I agree, but after researching indepth of what some company's terms of service ask, I will not be checking that box as freely.  This was the first time a piece of my writing had gone live so people, who I don't know, were able to read my writing.  I enjoyed having people commenting because they gave me constructive criticism, which forced me to go father with research.  I like the fact that my blog may have taught people and opened their eyes to what's actually written in the pages and pages of terms of service agreements.  I feel like going live with blog helped and taught other people as well as myself.  This experience has inspired me to keep on blogging.


  1. Thank you for posting an article on the need for users to be informed, Skategirl. Do you think that Facebook and Instagram have set a new standard that other Internet companies are starting to follow? I agree with your conclusion that legislation might help solve the problem. What, if anything, are legislators currently doing to encourage more transparency in writing privacy policies? --Ms Riches

    1. Hi Ms. Riches, I think, since Facebook and Instagram are two leaders of social media, they have set an example toward other companies such as snapchat and vine. Other social media companies have seen the issues that they have gone through and simplified their terms of service to aviod problems with users. You can see snapchat's simplified privacy policy at this link, As for your other question about legislation doing something about this issue of complicated, to my knowledge and research legislators are not currently making more transparent privacy policies. Thanks for the great questions, Skatergirl.

  2. Hello Skategirl, I really enjoy the topic that you chose to write about. Earlier today I was googling my own name and I came across my facebook profile picture, which I had under the 'private' setting. I didn't appreciate finding that very much. Therefor, this post hit close to home. You mention that "We need national legislation to demand for simpler worded terms of service that every age of users are able to understand because there have been many misunderstandings between users and social media companies" I don't agree that any company should be forced to do almost anything by the government. I think that if that certain company wanted to do something that would appeal to more users, that should be their choice. However, I think it would be be a good thing to make a suggestion. Do you think there is a way to strongly encourage those companies to simplify their terms of use and service without attempting to create any laws? A reward, possibly?

    1. Hi Leta, I think you bring up an interesting point about a reward being offered to companies with making simpler terms of service, and I think the reward is not having the mess of users being outraged that their information has been shared without their knowledge. Take Facebook, they had to deal with users being angry for a couple of years, and it created a huge headache for them, so the reward for making them simpler in the first place would be not having to deal with outraged customers at all. Thanks, Skatergirl.

  3. Hello, Skatergirl! I'm very glad you chose this topic, as you brought up some important topics that I've neglected to consider for quite a while. When I was newer to the internet, I always used to read the privacy agreements, but recently I've been forgetting to do so. Do you feel it's important to read the privacy agreements in all contexts, or just on certain sites?


    1. Hi Markie, I would say that no matter what the site is, whether it's social media or a website to buy products, the safe thing to is to read or at least become familiar with the terms of service and privacy policies, especially when you are revealing personal information. You never know what companies are allowed to do with your information. It's better to be safe than sorry. Thanks, Skatergirl.

  4. Skatergirl, a friend of mine who heard you on the radio, and has been following our work, sent me this video on Blindly Accepting Terms and Conditions, which features a professor discussing how these online policies are structured. He shares the statistic that the average person click "I agree" after 1.5 seconds...yikes! Here's a further link to a new plugin called "Literatin" which tells you how complicated what you're reading really is by identifying the "readability" level of the text. Very interesting and worth checking out!


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