Much of our life is wrapped up in our digital existence these days. If you’re like me, and I know a lot of you are, then you have a laundry list of websites you frequent and an ungodly amount of logins and passwords to remember. Every time we sign up for a new account on a different website we have to agree to some terms and conditions. Usually the terms are written in leaglize and we just skip to the bottom and check the box stating that we agree. Sometimes these greedy websites like to sneak in little bits that we might not actually want to agree to, but it is all cleverly worded in lawyer language so we don’t catch it even if we do read the terms. Other times these websites like to change their terms of service and it can create a spectacle that causes panic and unrest.
Yesterday there was a huge spectacle surrounding the changes in the ToS for Instagram. The geniuses that wrote Instagram’s ToS did so in indecipherable legalize and there was some questionable wording leading a lot of people to believe that Instagram was basically saying that had the rights to use any picture uploaded for whatever purpose they see fit. Tech news sites erupted with posts stating that you should cancel you Instagram accounts. Then some posts emerged that were telling people about other alternatives to Instagram. After several hours a bad press and probably an insane amount of account cancellations, Instagram released a statement pointing out that the parts of the new ToS in question didn’t actually state intent to claim ownership of uploaded photos or use them in advertisements. They even said that they were going to reword that section of the new terms of service. Unfortunately for them, I believe it was too little too late. Tons of people had already cancelled their accounts and were completely turned off by the idea of using Instagram again. I even cancelled mine. Honestly I thought Instagram was cool for about 5 minutes. I hadn’t be active on it for months and the whole debacle just drew my attention to the fact that I no longer needed to have it in my life. I’m sure that isn’t the case for everyone that cancelled yesterday though.
On March 1st of this year Google changed their ToS in an effort to make things less confusing. There are a lot of Google services, including YouTube, and instead of having a ToS agreement for all of them individually Google opted to unify their ToS to cover all of the services they provide. In these new terms there is a section that basically gives Google and their partners the right to use, replicate, distribute, host, translate, etc. any uploaded content from their users however they see fit. There was a bit of a media storm surrounding these changes at the time, but this was another situation involving services that people don’t think they can live without so there wasn’t a lot of attention given to the changes outside of the tech geeks. Google is known for data mining, and I believe their ToS changes were mostly to give them more of an ability to collect their precious data. I don’t necessarily think that is acceptable, but it also isn’t such a horrible thing that I’m going to stop using Google services. Still, if by some miracle Google loses popularity at some point then their ToS might become a deal breaker for some folks.
Then there is our beloved Netflix. Late last year they announced that they were splitting their DVD rental and streaming services. They lost a very significant amount of subscribers and their stock prices fell. They got sued by Virginia residents for keeping their DVD rental records for years after cancelling their service and paid out a heft $9 million settlement. Then Starz ditched Netflix which took away a lot of popular content causing them to lose even more subscribers. The future of Netflix was being questioned by many. In the past year their subscriber base has climbed back up and their stock prices got back to where they were. During all of this madness Netflix changed their ToS to include a clause stating that they can keep your rental records and that you have no right to take them to court over it. This change was stayed in the shadows of all of the other news surrounding Netflix and didn’t get a lot of attention from people. Now they have the right to keep your rental/streaming records and use that information however they seem fit (like selling it to other companies) and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. I bet most of you didn’t even realize that this was the case! The changes in ToS for Netflix didn’t lead to bad press or become a disaster because everything else they were doing at the time did.
Bottom line….pay a little more attention to the Terms of Service/Use whenever you create an account somewhere. Unfortunately there will probably always be something in their that gives ownership of uploaded content to the service provider or says that they can use your records however they see fit. That is kind of the nature of the beast now days, but being informed about what your agreeing to is always in your better interest. Instead of refusing to sign up for a service or cancelling whenever they change their terms, you can always just be more mindful of what you upload to those services. I mean, so what is Instagram wants to use my picture of an antique phone in an ad? It’s not nearly as big of a deal as it would be if they decide to use the picture you uploaded of you without a shirt! Also, know that even though one particular service/website might be the most popular for the kind of service it provide, but there are almost always alternatives out there that might have a less intrusive ToS agreement.