7 Surprising Things Lurking In Online ‘Terms of Service’ Agreements

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David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

UPDATE, DEC. 18: The popular photo-sharing platform Instagram faced harsh online criticism today from users who discovered that an upcoming change to the site’s Terms of Service will allow the company to sell users’ uploaded photos to businesses to use in advertising. Here are some other surprising clauses commonly found in online Terms of Service agreements. 

When is the last time you actually read the “terms of service” agreement before you registered for a new website or downloaded a new app? For all many of us know, we could be signing our digital lives away when we hastily click “Agree.” (Just ask the “South Park” kids.) Below is a primer on a few of the individual rights you (usually unwittingly) give away when you sign up for some popular Internet services.

1. Your Photos May Be For Sale
Most photo-sharing apps and websites, such as Instagram, reserve the right to use, delete, modify or publicly display your photos. The Twitter-based photo-sharing program Twitpic goes a step further by granting these rights to Twitpic’s affiliates. In 2011 the company inked a deal to sell photos to the World Entertainment Celebrity News Network. That means if you go into paparazzi mode, snap an exclusive photo of Justin Bieber, and put it on Twitpic, the company can sell it without crediting or compensating you. Still, it’s a better deal than their old terms, which banned users from selling their own photos.

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2. You May Not Be Able To Delete Your Account. Ever.
Skype is one of several web services that does not offer users the ability to delete their accounts. An FAQ on the site suggests that users delete all their personal information, but it’s not clear whether Skype retains this info internally. The blog platform WordPress also offers no way to delete your account.

3. Companies Can Track Your Web Activities—Even After You Leave Their Site
Facebook’s labyrinthine Data Use Policy notes that the company can place tracking codes called cookies in your browser to keep tabs on your Internet activity. Many sites on the Web actively use cookies, but the breadth and depth of Facebook’s data is noteworthy. If you’re logged into Facebook, the company tracks every website you visit that has a Facebook “Like” or “Share” button and ties it directly to your name and email address for 90 days, according to USA Today. Even if you’re logged out or don’t have a Facebook account, your digital travels are assigned an alphanumeric code that is still tied to your IP address. The company itself still isn’t sure what it’s going to do with this massive amount of data, but it’s actively looking for ways to monetize it.

4. Your Data Can Be Given to Law Enforcement Without Your Knowledge
While a few websites like LinkedIn have specific law enforcement guidelines, most tech companies don’t explicitly say what they’ll do with your digital data when the police come knocking. That’s because a lot of times, they’ll hand it over without notifying you. Cell phone carriers are among the worst when it comes to transparency in dealings with law enforcement, according to a study by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Neither AT&T nor Verizon promise to inform customers when their private data has been requested by government officials. Last year law enforcement officials made at least 1.3 million such requests from cell carriers, seeking text messages and even geolocation data. Apple and Amazon, among others, also have no policy to inform users when their info is subpoenaed.

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5. You Could Be Banned from Filing Class Action Lawsuits
After a string of security breaches crippled Sony’s online PlayStation Network and revealed the private data of millions of users, Sony faced a class-action lawsuit from disgruntled customers. A few months later, Sony issued new Terms of Service for the PlayStation Network that banned users from grouping together to bring class-action suits against the tech company. This strategy, upheld as legal by the Supreme Court in 2011, has also been implemented by Microsoft and AT&T.

6. Even If You ‘Delete’ a Piece of Content, the Company May Hold Onto It
Though you may immediately regret posting that drunken pic from your night on the town, just deleting a piece of content from the social web doesn’t mean you’ve seen the last of it. Facebook holds onto deleted content for a “reasonable period of time.” Twitpic will hold onto your photos forever, “in case of a legal issue.” Though Twitter is more direct in providing a timetable, it’ll still take about five weeks for your content to disappear from their servers. And of course if anything you posted was shared, copied, or caught in Google’s search cache, it’s unlikely you’ll ever get rid of it permanently.

7. Whether the Terms Are Fair or Not, They Could Change At Any Moment
Almost every web service reserves the right to change their terms of service whenever they see fit. Some services, like Instagram, promise to inform users before a “material” change to the terms is made. Others, like Yahoo, may never inform you. In general, the big players are actually better on this point: Google typically allows 14 days to review terms of service changes and potentially opt out of use of their services, while Facebook now puts changes in its privacy policy to a public vote.

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In the interest of full disclosure, we’ll note that a review our own Terms of Use and Privacy Policy shows that Time.com utilizes tracking cookies, can change its Terms of Use without notice and has no formal policy to inform users before giving their personal information to law enforcement.

The above list only addresses things that you actually agree to when you sign up for web services. Of course, web users are also vulnerable to abusive practices to which they haven’t agreed: Lawsuits and investigations have been mounting over the past several years as tech companies get caught violating their own terms of use and privacy policies.

The bottom line is this: With every web company having a different definition of the words “fair” and “privacy,” users should pay a little more attention to what they’re signing away when they click “Agree” on the registration page.