I have a confession to make: I do not read Terms of Service agreements. Every time I update an operating system or download an app, I skip over this critical step — but soon my behavior may change. And for anyone who has ever wondered, what do Instagram’s Terms of Service mean? I have exciting news: As part of an experiment in digital transparency, privacy lawyer Jenny Afia has rewritten Insta’s original 17-page TOS contract so that anyone can understand exactly what it all means.
A typical TOS agreement can be difficult to understand, even for those with perfect scores on their reading comprehension SATs. For many, it’s the dense legalese and length that puts people (like me) off — and while it's obviously important for legal documents like TOS agreements to be written in, well, legal language, it seems I am unfortunately part of the majority in my lack of understand.
This is not a new problem, either. A recently released report by the Growing Up Digital taskforce, supported by England’s Children’s Commission, found that Terms of Service agreements are largely ignored by teen social media users. While not surprising, it does drive home the fact that we don't really keep as close an eye on our personal information as we should.
There's no denying that teens are social media wizards, and much of their free time is devoted to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The popularity of Instagram made it the perfect case study for the taskforce (the report asserts that over a half the UK's teens aged 13 through 15 use the app). When a group of young teens were asked to read Instagram's 5,000 word Terms of Service agreement, most balked. They described it as boring, difficult to understand, and begged to stop reading halfway through. "You have to spend like 10 minutes on each sentence," one 13 year old protested. Even after reading the entirety of the document, the teens asserted that they still didn't fully grasp its content.
As an exercise, the taskforce asked lawyer Jenny Afia to make Instagram's Terms of Service more accessible, rewriting the contract utilizing straightforward, easy-to-read language and sentence structure. After just a few hours' work, the entire re-worked agreement fit on just one page.
For example, part eight of the "rights" section of Instagram's TOS agreement reads:
It's actually all very sensible — once you know what it means to the average social media user. The rewritten document simplifies this section to:
The fully rewritten TOS can be found on page 10 of the Children's Commission report.
After reading the simplified version of the agreement, the group of teens concluded that it was helpful and easy to understand. It seems those pesky Terms of Service agreements are there for a reason after all!