THE BLOG
08/14/2013 05:36 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

These Terms and Conditions Shouldn't Apply to Anyone

In a previous blog, I commended filmmaker Cullen Hoback's riveting new documentary, "Terms And Conditions May Apply," for spotlighting how social media on the Internet has become a real-time surveillance state. In many ways, I liken Hoback's efforts to those of Michael Moore's documentary "Roger and Me" and Morgan Spurlock's indictment of the fast food industry "Super Size Me." Yes, I firmly believe Hoback's work is that important a piece. Here's why.

In the spirit of Hoback's piece, I explored some of the cryptic terms, conditions, and privacy policies of some of the leading web sites. I, similar to Hoback, think you should be afraid, very afraid (not to mention shocked and angered) about what's there.

One of the points that Hoback makes is that we blindly accept a web sites numbing "War and Peace" length Terms because we have neither the time nor the patience to read a treatise we'll never understand. We'll agree to anything just to get to the content.

Take Vine for example and its more than 4,500 words used to describe its Terms and Privacy Policy. This is what they promise to do with your content:

"...make Content submitted to or through the Services available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Vine for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use."

The translation here is that Vine can share your information with its partners according to the conditions it sets which, by the way, as written later, it can change at any time without notifying you. Imagine that as the headline on its home page? Sure, you own the content, but Vine can do anything they want with it. Sadly, when it comes to social media sites, this is more the norm than the exception.

Instagram, with its close to 3000 words worth of Terms, outlines how they share your information:

"We will not rent or sell your information to third parties outside Instagram (or the group of companies of which Instagram is a part) without your consent, except as noted in this Policy."

Similar to Vine, they can rent or sell your information as they see fit, as long as it adheres to its Privacy Policy, which as a living document, it can change at any time without notifying you. Did you follow that?

Pinterest, with a Terms and Privacy Policy lasting a not-so-swift 5,000+ words, changes its policy the following way:

"...we'll post any changes on this page. If you continue to use Pinterest after those changes are in effect, you agree to the revised policy. If the changes are significant, we may provide more prominent notice or obtain your consent as required by law."

So let's ignore the "post any changes and you might get notified" part. The shocking part is that you agree to any revisions simply by having an active account. That's like saying you agree to arsenic in your water simply by drinking it, regardless of the fact you never knew it was there.

The two companies who take the most flack for privacy violations are Google and Facebook. Google takes more than 2,000 words on its Privacy Policy alone. The sentence I want to call out is one found on most sites:

"We use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users."

In other words, they collect all your information under the guise of "improving the service." My question is "improving for who?" Sure they'll say the consumer, but as we all know there are no free lunches. Even better, notice how they state they're protecting themselves first and then you? Guess who's the low head on the totem pole here?

And then there's Facebook with its 9,000 word Privacy Policy meant to spell out in full detail why Mark Zuckerberg doesn't want you to have any. Notice the phrasing of some of the statements below:

"We receive data about you whenever you interact with Facebook." (even sites with only a Facebook "like" button)

"We may use the information we receive about you: to protect Facebook's or others' rights or property..." (notice how they don't mention your rights)

"We store data for as long as it is necessary..." (how do they define necessary?)

The preceding examples are not indicative of every site out there, just most of them. For me, I designed Sgrouples from a consumer perspective, mainly the protection of our right to privacy within the rapidly expanding world of social media. Our Privacy Bill of Rights is 10 sentences long and less than 200 words. I believe all sites should adhere to such simple and concrete privacy rules and conditions. After all, these sites were designed not as social law networks, but rather as social media venues to bring people and their information together in a safe and secure environment. It sounds rather simple, but as Hoback's documentary shows us, we have made the simple all too complex.