Secrets in the small print: What exactly are we signing up for online?

Instagram’s bid to seize our online photos only highlights how ignorant we are of the terms and conditions attached to every digital transaction

Imagine walking into a high street bookshop and asking for the latest bestseller. The shop keeper runs it through the till. But before you hand over your money he insists you sign a set of terms and conditions which allow the shop to know where you are when you read your book and track who you pass it on to.

A few stores down you walk into a music store to buy a CD. Once again you receive a long sheet of paper insisting that you are merely renting the rights to listen to the music contained on the disc and, once you die, you’ll be forced to hand it back.

On something as physically tangible as a high street, such possibilities seem straight out of a Philip K Dick novel. But in cyberspace they are a normal part of everyday transactions.

The decision this week by the photo-sharing website Instagram to change its terms and conditions, and the consumer backlash it generated, has thrown into sharp relief just what we agree to when we visit a website, sign up to a social network, store data on the Cloud or purchase goods online.

Instagram, which was sold to Facebook earlier this year for an eye-watering $1bn, is looking for ways to monetise – a not unreasonable request given that its 100 million users get to benefit from their software for free.

Most online users expect some advertising or data collection. But for many, Instagram went a step too far when it appeared to suggest that it would be able to sell anyone’s photos to third parties without notice or recompense. As the online outrage grew the website went into frantic back-peddling mode yesterday, guaranteeing that it wouldn’t sell your photos.

The damage may already be done. Meanwhile, people are asking, just what is it I’ve agreed to on all those other apps and websites I use? The fact of the matter is that when we visit websites, sign up to online communities, purchase apps and goods, we are often asked to sign terms and conditions which effectively treat the consumer like statistical guinea pigs.

Very few of us even bother to read those conditions. Two years ago the British computer game store GameStation put a joke clause into their terms and conditions for April Fools which asked the consumer to hand over their “immortal soul”. More than 7,500 customers duly did before the condition was removed.

Personal data collection is particularly lucrative when it comes to mobile technology. Recent research by the US technology firm Juniper Networks, for example, found that 24 per cent of free apps in Google Play, the app store for Android phones, had permission to track your location. A further seven per cent could access your phone book.

The flip side, of course, is that such data is exactly what makes these apps work so well. Google Maps needs to know where you are in order to guide you to your next destination which is why – if you want GPS turned on – you need to give Google permission to track you. But legitimate concerns persist exist when that data is passed on to third parties.

Who owns digital data is also a contentious issue. In September, sections of the British press reported that Bruce Willis intended to sue Apple because he couldn’t bequeath his digital music collection to his children in the event of his death. The story was denied by Willis’s spokesman but it did highlight how digital purchases differ from physical ones.

Most of the major online music retailers, such as Apple and Amazon, are not selling you a music file when you download it. They are selling you the rights to listen to and distribute the file in accordance with the restrictions laid down in their terms and conditions.

Over the course of a lifetime in the digital age we might collect thousands of films, books and song tracks. Yet under most of the current terms and conditions used by major companies we won’t be able to pass them on when we pass on.

Meanwhile, many in the creative world believe young online consumers  are now getting a taste of their own medicine following years of illegal downloads. As the television producer Kenton Allen, remarked yesterday: “File sharing: you don’t mind when it’s some musician’s song or a designer’s game. When it’s your sh***y Instagram photos it all changes, eh?”

Terms of service: What you're signing up for   


The confusion over Instagram’s terms and conditions has been a boon for photo-sharing rival Flickr which allows users much greater control over the level of copyright they want to assign each piece of work. Users can give their photos away for free under the creative commons licence, or insist on charging. Crucially, however, the full version of Flickr requires an annual subscription whereas Instagram is free.


Google earlier this year unified its terms of service and privacy policies across all its different platforms – from Gmail to Maps, Google+, YouTube and Google Drive. Google has long allowed itself to collect data on users, something which it insists gives customers a more tailored service. Now if you search for dogs in Google, the next time you go to YouTube it might recommend cute puppy videos.


Apple’s terms of service have a reputation for being so long and unwieldy that it prompted a South Park episode in which one of the characters unwittingly signed up to becoming a part human, part iPad experiment. Apple has recently begun to tackle the problem of users having no idea what they have agreed to when they download an app. In its latest iOS – the operating system for the iPhone – users can see which apps are collecting what piece of data and switch off the ones they’d prefer to keep private.


In a shock move, Instagram announced changes to its terms of service this week which seemed to allow the sale of people’s photos without notice or recompense. It has since said it will rephrase the terminology. Facebook, which owns Instagram, has similar terms of service which allows them to use someone’s profile for commercial gain, but it doesn’t have access to pictures.

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