A lawyer rewrote Instagram’s terms of use ‘in plain English’ so kids would know their privacy rights

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It’s no secret that teenagers love social media.

Members of “Generation Z” can spend up to nine hours a day sharing photos on Instagram, consuming “content” on YouTube and talking to friends on Snapchat. (Just don’t ask them to get excited about Facebook.)

But how much do these teens understand what they’ve agreed to give up when they start an account with those sites?

Probably very little, according to a report released last week – and dense terms and conditions that are “impenetrable and largely ignored” are partly to blame.

“‘Terms and conditions’ is one of the first things you agree to when you come upon a site,” Jenny Afia, a privacy lawyer and partner at Schillings law firm in London, told The Washington Post. “But of course no one reads them. I mean, most adults don’t read them.”

Afia was a member of a “Growing Up Digital” task force group convened by the Children’s Commissioner for England to study internet use among teens and the concerns children might face as they grow up in the digital age.

The group found more than a third of internet users are younger than 18, with 12- to 15-year-olds spending more than 20 hours a week online.

Most of those children have no idea what their privacy rights are, despite all of them agreeing to terms and conditions before starting their social media accounts, Afia said. The task force, which included experts from the public and private sector, worked for a year and released its report Wednesday.

“The situation is serious,” Afia said in the report. “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.”

One reason for this became apparent when the task force asked a group of teenagers to read and interpret Instagram’s terms and conditions. Many of them balked at the exercise: Instagram’s terms of use in total run at least seven printed pages, with more than 5,000 words, mostly written in legalese.

“Boring!” one 13-year-old girl declared during the exercise. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

After 20 minutes, the same teen questioned why she should continue reading.

“Are you sure this is necessary?” she said. “There are, like, 100 pages.”

Afterward, the teenagers said they understood very little about privacy rights on Instagram, despite getting through the terms and conditions.

“I don’t know due to the sheer amount of writing and the lack of clarity within the document,” a 15-year-old said, according to the report.

The group ran Instagram’s terms and conditions through a readability study and found that it registered at a postgraduate reading level, Afia said.

She was tasked with rewriting the company’s terms and conditions “in plain English.” It took her several hours, she said.

“It was doable,” Afia said. “But it was quite taxing and definitely time-consuming.”

The simplified terms of service fit on a single page. The following paragraph is taken from Instagram’s terms of use:

“You are responsible for any activity that occurs through your account and you agree you will not sell, transfer, license or assign your account, followers, username, or any account rights. With the exception of people or businesses that are expressly authorized to create accounts on behalf of their employers or clients, Instagram prohibits the creation of and you agree that you will not create an account for anyone other than yourself. You also represent that all information you provide or provided to Instagram upon registration and at all other times will be true, accurate, current and complete and you agree to update your information as necessary to maintain its truth and accuracy.”

After Afia rewrote it for teenagers to be able to understand, it became, simply: “Don’t use anybody else’s account without their permission or try to find out their login details.”

Other complex paragraphs were similarly condensed to sentences that were easier to digest:

– “Don’t bully anyone or post anything horrible about people.”

– “Officially you own any original pictures and videos you post, but we are allowed to use them, and we can let others use them as well, anywhere around the world. Other people might pay us to use them and we will not pay you for that.”

– “Although you are responsible for the information you put on Instagram, we may keep, use and share your personal information with companies connected with Instagram. This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram, and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).”

The result was heartening, the report said. The task force asked the same group of children and teenagers to read the simplified terms and found they understood them far more clearly.

“I think they should show these Terms and Conditions to people who sign up because otherwise you don’t really know what you’re signing up to,” said the 13-year-old who had declared the original document “Boring!”

“I would use Direct Messaging a lot less if I knew (Instagram) could read them,” she added.

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. Last month, Instagram announced that it had grown to 600 million users, with 100 million of those joining during the previous six-month period.

According to the report, more than half of 12- to 15-year-olds in the United Kingdom – and nearly half of 8- to 11-year-olds – who are active on social media have an account on Instagram, despite the company dictating in its terms that users have to be at least 13.

“Instagram, like many social networks, leaves the user with very little information to exercise their rights or any genuine privacy,” the report said. “This exercise makes it clear that the current offering made by websites and apps to their users is not acceptable. Children and young people have the right to know how the relationship between their rights and the rights of the service that they have signed up to use, functions.”

Instagram did not respond to an interview request over the weekend.

The group hopes its study – and the simplified terms of use – will spur conversations between parents and their children that privacy online is important, no matter the platform.

“I think the timely goal is just plain English so that children can actually give informed consent,” Afia said. “And then once there is more transparency around how the site works, we hope that will lead to some consumer pressure from the children and they will start demanding more … And parents need to bear in mind children are children until they become adults – not until they pick up a smartphone. We need to treat them as children.”

At least one teenager quoted in the report said he would take privacy matters into his own hands, however, after going through the exercise.

“I’m deleting Instagram,” 13-year-old Alex said, “because it’s weird.”

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Amy B Wang

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