Snapchat’s Fine Print Causes Huge Outcry

Companies Need Accessible Policies and Strong Disclosure Practices

Let’s get this out of the way: Snapchat tried to do a good thing. But it didn’t work out that way. The social media company, known for ephemerality of media shared between users, updated its terms of service and privacy policy on October 28 with the aim of making both more accessible to readers and users of its service. As the company explained in a blog post several days later, the purpose of the update was to “rewrite the Terms and Privacy Policy so that they’d read the way people actually talk.” Instead, the changes prompted widespread criticism and confusion (and ultimately, clarification) on both privacy and intellectual property fronts.

One particular clause in the terms of service drew the most ire:

But you grant Snapchat a worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, create derivative works from, publicly perform, broadcast, distribute, syndicate, promote, exhibit, and publicly display that content in any form and in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

It’s clear why so many people objected to the language. Nothing could sound more like Snapchat users were signing away their privacy and intellectual property rights by clicking “Agree” to the updated terms of service. Snapchat assuaged users with its November 1 blog post, explaining that while the license is broad, users could adjust their privacy settings in order to “restrict the scope of that license so that your personal communications continue to remain truly personal.” Perhaps the worst part, for Snapchat at least, is that the company had not actually changed the substance of that section of its terms of service. The updates were part of an effort to make the language of the terms of service less weighed down by legalese, as somewhat seen in the previous version [available via the Wayback Machine]:

However, by submitting User Content to Snapchat, you hereby grant us an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, promote, exhibit, and display such User Content in any and all media or distribution methods, now known or later developed (the "User Content License"), subject to any privacy settings you have set to control who can see your User Content.

Snapchat is only the latest in a long line of companies who have faced backlash for changes to their terms of service. Two weeks ago it was YouTube, in 2012 Instagram and Pinterest were in the spotlight, and now even Apple is getting some attention as an artist has started releasing one page a day of iTunes Terms and Conditions, The Graphic Novel: The Complete, Unabridged Legal Agreement. As of November 10, artist R. SIkoryak has released 55 pages and plans for the full novel to run 94 pages.

Some of the backlash these and other companies have faced may be deserved and some of it may not, but most of it probably could have been avoided. Literally almost every part of modern life comes with terms of service or some other agreement consumers must accept before proceeding. Buying a bus farecard, taking advantage of a loyalty program at the grocery store, watching a TV show on Netflix, creating a Gmail account – every one of these activities has one, if not multiple, agreements consumers must consent to. But how many of these terms of service do average consumers read? More importantly, how many of these contracts do average consumers understand? The answer is very little.

Last Tuesday, Ranking Digital Rights released its first-ever Corporate Accountability Index. Housed at OTI, the project “evaluates 16 of the world’s most powerful Internet and telecommunications companies on their public commitments and disclosed policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy.” Among other takeaways, the researchers found that company efforts to inform users about their rights and what happens with their data are poor: “Even companies that make efforts to publish such information still fail to communicate clearly with users about what is collected about them, with whom it is shared, under what circumstances, and how long the information is kept,” researchers wrote.

Snapchat’s attempt to free its terms of service from complex legalese is laudable, but the effort didn’t pay off the way the company had hoped. However, as contradictory as it may seem, more companies should follow Snapchat’s lead. Terms of service, privacy policies, end-user license agreements, community guidelines, service agreements, acceptable use policies – the fine print, all of it – has overwhelmed consumers. As our digital and non-digital lives alike increasingly come with the requirement to click “Agree,” Snapchat’s attempt to make the fine print accessible to consumers, rather than overwhelm them with a wall of legal text, offers one path forward.

Author:

Liz Woolery is a senior policy analyst in New America's Open Technology Institute. Her work focuses on the intersection of digital free expression, privacy, and transparency.