Snapchat clarifies privacy policies after terms of service change freaks out users

Snapchat's terms of service and privacy policy have changed, but the company says the changes are not nefarious and nothing to worry about.

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Snapchat recently tweaked its terms of service and privacy policy, and the Internet didn’t like the alterations one bit. The new policies are drastic changes from the former versions and did away with Snapchat’s most important privacy phrase, “Delete is our default.” Trying to calm the outrage, Snapchat clarified what it really meant by its new terms in a blog post on Sunday.

At the center of concern is something we’ve seen play out again and again on social networks—namely, that Snapchat owns your content and, in a Snapchat-specfic twist, will no longer delete it from their servers, as they previously claimed. If true, it would be a pretty concerning change considering Snapchat’s a prime target for government data requests.

Snapchat’s new terms of service include the following language:

But you grant Snapchat a worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, create derivative works from, publicly perform, broadcast, distribute, syndicate, promote, exhibit, and publicly display that content in any form and in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

From the sounds of it, Snapchat owns your content and that’s it, which would be an odd claim for a network that prides itself on sharing messages with a shelf life.

The above quote is out of context, however. Notice the “but” that comes at the beginning of the section? Here’s what precedes that:

Many of our Services let you create, upload, post, send, receive, and store content. When you do that, you retain whatever ownership rights in that content you had to begin with.

That makes it pretty clear that you are only giving Snapchat distribution rights over your content. We should note, however, that we’re looking at the new terms on Monday. It’s not clear if the new terms had that sentence when they were first published.

A more problematic bit of language comes a little bit later in Snapchat’s new terms of service:

We will use this license for the limited purpose of operating, developing, providing, promoting, and improving the Services; researching and developing new ones; and making content submitted through the Services available to our business partners for syndication, broadcast, distribution, or publication outside the Services.

That sounds like your snaps sent via Snapchat could be shared with advertisers and business partners, but the company says that’s not the case. “Because we continue to delete [your messages] from our servers as soon as they’re read, we could not—and do not—share them with advertisers or business partners,” Snapchat said in its blog post.

As for why Snapchat felt the need to change its terms, the company said it wanted to offer terms in more natural language—something it also did with the previous version. Snapchat also added a section about in-app payments to its terms of service, and clarified what content is visible to people you aren’t connected to on Snapchat.

In its blog post, Snapchat emphasized that the company’s policy about automatically deleting snaps and chats from its servers hasn’t changed. The new privacy policy has four paragraphs that explain how deletion works. That includes an explanation of how it does, in fact, retain backups of users content for a “limited period of time or as required by law.”

The story behind the story: The concern over Snapchat’s new terms feels like a replay of the brouhaha over Facebook’s terms nearly 7 years ago. Facebook also wanted a perpetual license in order to distribute a user’s content, and there was also an uproar—one that sparked a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. As of this writing, Facebook’s terms state, “you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License).” Twitter has similar language, as does Google and Microsoft.

Snapchat’s terms may be surprising if you’ve never seen anything like it, but every social and online service has something similar in their terms.

As far as protecting yourself goes, Snapchat is a fun way to communicate with friend—just don’t rely on it as a place to communicate in privacy. Even though messages are quickly deleted that doesn’t mean the messages will never be seen again. That may happen most of the time, but it’s not something you want to rely on. For better privacy try chat tools that use encryption.

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