Terms of Service? Didn’t Read!

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This post also appears on Huffington Post and on LeeKolbert.com

An article published recently on The Washington Post shines a light on the fact that most teenagers who use Instagram and other social media websites, are not aware of the Terms of Service (TOS) and have no idea to the extent they are relinquishing their privacy, or their own content. Jenny Afia, a privacy lawyer and partner at Schillings law firm in London says, “The situation is serious…Young people are unwittingly giving away personal information, with no real understanding of who is holding that information, where they are holding it and what they are going to do with it.” When Afia’s task force ran Instagram’s terms and conditions through a readability study, they found that it registered at a postgraduate reading level.

Afia was then tasked with rewriting Instagram’s TOS in plain English. She summed it all up into a single sentence:

“Don’t use anybody else’s account without their permission or try to find out their login details.”

The task force said the same message could be applied to most social media sites, but it focused on Instagram for its ubiquity and popularity among teenagers.

The article focuses on teenagers as a demographic, but I would venture to guess most people of all ages who use not only social media sites, but also apps and other services to which they must click to agree to a TOS, have no idea what they just agreed. To many, the “clickwrap” agreements are just an annoying barrier to getting to the goods. A single click, and you’re in!

For the average user, it’s not such a big deal I suppose. After all, if you don’t care about your own content, why should I? Unless of course, we are friends on Facebook and you start using an app that pulls in my information. (Check your FB privacy settings and be sure you pay special attention to “Apps Others Use” and uncheck all of the items.)

On the other hand, if you are a teacher and you are agreeing to some TOS on behalf of your students, then this becomes much more serious. Especially in US public schools, your students (and their parents), trust you to comply with FERPA at all times. So, when you open a class Twitter or Instagram account for example, and post student photos (i.e., student records), you are potentially making some decisions, and taking some risks, that go far beyond that which you do for basic educational purposes in your classroom.

Kudos to Tumblr for adding hip language to its TOS to make it more readable.

How awesome would it be to have one resource that aggregates all the most popular web services and rewrites the TOS in plain English? If only… Oh wait, there’s TOSDR (Terms of Service Didn’t Read)! Pretty handy, indeed. In addition, rock star educator, blogger, and friend, Howard Martin, keeps a publicly available Google Doc for TOS for some popular Web 2.0 tools.

What to do?

  1. Read all TOS when signing up for a new service and check back often, because almost all of them have a provision that says they can change their TOS at any time, and they don’t have to tell you.
  2. If you are planning to post student records (photos, work samples, etc.), obtain explicit parental consent. This means those generic directory permission forms, typically found embedded in school registration forms, may not be enough. From FERPA website:

If student records are to be released…, the school or school system must obtain prior consent of the parent. Signed and dated written consent must: Specify the records that will be released; State the reason for releasing the records; and Identify the groups or individuals who will receive the records.

  1. Check your school or district policies on releasing student records, and if you’re lucky enough to have a social media policy, read it carefully.
  2. Understand that just because a service is free, doesn’t mean it’s OK to use. No matter how tempting, avoid uploading student names, IDs, and other personally identifying information until you’ve reviewed the service’s TOS and your district or school’s policies.