What did you just “agree” to?

21 June 2018

Written by: Ann Khorany

Should we care more about reading terms and conditions? It's an emphatic "yes" from the experts.

When was the last time you bothered to read the terms and conditions for any social media platform before you ticked the box that says, “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions?”

Chances are you probably never have because these documents are too long to read, let alone understand what they mean.

In fact, according to researchers Lorrie Faith Cranor and Alicia McDonald, it would take an average person 76 working days to read Facebook’s Terms of Service (TOS) and Data Policy.

As a result, millions of Facebook users have blindly consented to let the company to collect and use their private data.

Recently, Facebook announced that British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica misused millions of Facebook users’ personal data without their permission.

More than 300,000 of those affected by this data breach are Australian citizens who use Facebook actively.

Photo by Tofros.com from Pexels

So, what does this mean for you?

If you have created a Facebook account, you have already given your consent to the company to collect and use your data in a number of ways.

Facebook can legally sell your personal information to third parties. The company is also able to use your profile information and the images and videos that you post online to promote adverts in return for boosting its profit.

Is this surprising news?

It shouldn’t be because you gave Facebook the permission to use your data in whichever way it wants the moment you ticked that terms and conditions box.

Dr Christopher Culnane, an academic at The University of Melbourne who specialises in privacy and cyber security, says that social media users need to be more aware of the business model of the social media platform that they use.

“If you’re sharing your information, you’re losing control over it,” he told upstart.

“So it’s difficult if you’re engaging in [social media] platforms to not just become a product, because that is their purpose.”

Former Victorian Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection, and current United Nations Special Rapporteur on Privacy’s Big Data lead Dr David Watts, encourages active Facebook users to be “very careful” of what they chose to share online.

“The information that you post or Facebook holds about you is held by [the company] until Facebook finds it no longer useful,” he told upstart.

“Once your privacy is breached, the only thing you can prevent is further publication.”

This means users must be very mindful of a social media company’s terms and conditions to understand how their data can be used before providing their consent and publishing material online.

An example of precisely why users should play close attention was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Jonathan A. Obar and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch in 2016.

Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

The aim was to educate social media users of the consequences that can result when people neglect reading the terms and conditions in the process of creating an online social media account.

The study involved 543 university students signing up to a fictitious online social media platform know as NameDrop. However, before they could create their online account, they had to first agree to the terms and conditions of the website.

The results found that 74 percent of students had ignored reading the privacy policy section and chosen the “quick join” option to create their account.

So, what policies did they consent to?

By agreeing to NameDrop’s terms and conditions, students’ data could now be shared with third parties. This had the potential to impact their ability to withdraw a bank loan, enter a university, as well as affect their future employment.

By not taking the time to read NameDrop’s terms and conditions, students had already consented to also give up their first-born child in return for the social networking service (SNS).

While some believe that deleting their Facebook account will protect from a data breech, Dr Watts believes otherwise.

“The data is never really deleted. In a way it’s remained there somewhere. It’s just a question of knowing where to find it,” he said.

In fact, Facebook specifically says in its Data Policy that it stores a user’s data until it becomes “no longer necessary.”

“The concept of getting data back that you only have possession of is not something that happens,” Dr Watts said.

“They will keep the data as long as it’s relevant and they will use it.”

Dr Watts advises active social media users to take extra precautions when engaging with social media platforms such as Facebook.

“Be very careful of what you put online because the assumption [is] that it will be there forever,” he said.

So, the next time someone asks you when was the last time you read the terms and conditions for any social media platform before agreeing to them, hopefully you will reply with “I always have.”


Ann Khorany is a first-year journalism student at La Trobe University. Follow her thoughts on Twitter @ann_saka