How bad writing is pilfering our privacy

Jayne Dalmer | January 19, 2017

‘Boring! It doesn’t make any sense!’

A 13-year-old’s reaction to reading Instagram’s terms of use. Would a child of 13 read and understand 5000 words of text before signing up to a social media app? Would any of us?

If we knew we were handing over our photographs and private messages before we tapped ‘Accept’, would we think twice?

Can we make an informed choice about the digital services we use if we don’t bother to read what we’re agreeing to, or can’t understand it? Can our agreement be enforced if we can’t understand what we agreed to?

These questions are being asked more frequently — most recently by the UK Children’s Commissioner. In a report, Growing up Digital, the Commissioner focused on Instagram’s terms of use as an example.

Fifty-six percent of young people aged 12–15 use Instagram, and 43 percent of those aged 8–11.

When asked to actually read the 5000-word terms of use for Instagram, teenagers surveyed by the commissioner’s taskforce baulked.

Make it stop!

‘Are you sure this is necessary? There are like 100 pages!’ (13-year-old)

After 20 minutes of reading, they were only halfway through and begging to be allowed to stop.

When asked what they had understood about their privacy rights, this was a typical reaction:

‘I don’t know due to the sheer amount of writing and the lack of clarity within the document.’ (15-year-old)

Black and white image of cat's face

Pussycat or predator? Plain language can help you decide. Image by Tookapic / CCO

Plain language lifts the veil

The taskforce asked a law firm, Shillings, to draft a plain language version of Instagram’s terms of use. Plain language focuses on the reader’s needs and uses familiar words, shorter sentences, and a logical structure. The word count was drastically reduced from 5000, and 17 pages became two. The clear and concise language revealed the key messages. Here is an example of one of the rewritten paragraphs:

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).

Read the whole rewritten terms here

The taskforce tested these rewritten terms with teenage Instagram users, and found they could now easily understand the terms. Here’s how the teenagers reacted to what they understood.

‘They must know that no one reads the terms and conditions. But if they made it more easy then people would actually read it and think twice about the app. They write like this so you can’t understand it. Because then you might think differently.’ (13-year-old)

‘When it was put that way as opposed to being bogged down in technicalities, it made me realise just how much of my personal data I am giving away to a random company without realising. They are also free to give this information to third parties, and this is all something I have agreed to (without realising), just by agreeing to the terms and conditions.’ (16-year-old)

‘I’m deleting Instagram because it’s weird.’ (13-year-old)

Clear information leads to informed decisions

The Commissioner’s taskforce used Instagram as an example, but points out that in order to use many other popular social media apps, children as well as adults are being asked to accept that:

All of us, and especially children, have a right to know what we’re agreeing to and what can happen to our information.

To make informed choices, we need our information to be clear and to the point.

Clear language builds trust and authenticity

From a business such as Instagram’s point of view, people are much more likely to trust and value the authenticity of a company that communicates openly using plain language.

Write can help you write legally binding terms and conditions using clear and concise language

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