Snapchat updated its Terms of Service last week, and the Internet freaked out a little bit. Some users interpreted changes to mean the company could now hang on to users' private messages, broadcast them publicly and sell them to third parties.
Actor and former White House staff member Kal Penn was among those who raised alarm bells:
— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) October 29, 2015
The pushback grew so loud that Snapchat took to its blog Sunday to explain itself, saying that private Snaps and Chats are still automatically deleted from its servers once viewed or expired.
But, Snapchat said, its new Terms of Service granted the company "broad license" to user content. The company said those clauses are meant to apply to images and videos users share publicly for its "Live Stories" feature, which may be syndicated across other platforms. The new policy was also expanded to account for its Replay feature, which charges users who want to rewatch videos more than once, the blog post said.
Ultimately, the terms aren't all that different from what you see on a slew of other sites and services that occasionally cause similar panics. One way the company is hoping to temper the backlash is by getting people to read the parts they're freaking out about.
Of course, few people actually do that. And that's ultimately at the heart of why people got so worked up about the Snapchat changes: It's just not rational to believe that people are able to read, let alone understand, all the privacy policies they bump up against in their daily lives. Instead, users now rely on the Internet hivemind to know if a particularly egregious privacy change is afoot.
Research from Aleecia M. McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor published in 2008 helps explain why. The pair estimated that it would take a staggering 244 hours a year for the average American to read the privacy policies of every site they visit over the course of a year. That means it would take more than 10 full days of doing nothing but reading privacy policies day and night.
Otherwise, there's no way the average person could keep up with all the data-sucking caveats buried in the privacy policies of the sites and services they use. This probably helps explain why more than 90 percent of adults surveyed by Pew Research agreed that "consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies."
In the case of Snapchat, users may be wary because the service has already had significant privacy problems. Flaws in its "Find Friends" feature left the phone numbers and usernames of 4.6 million users exposed during the 2013 holiday season. And in 2014, the company agreed to settle charges from the Federal Trade Commission that it had deceived consumers about how the "disappearing" features in its app actually worked.
But instead of reassuring users, the company got caught in the vortex of paranoia people feel when they are reminded just how impossible it is for them to keep track of who controls their information online.