Snapchat’s effort to make its policies more readable backfires

Snapchat has attempted to ease the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that spread like wildfire after it updated its terms of service and privacy policy last week.
The company said in a blog post today that it continues to delete users’ photos from its servers after they are viewed or have expired. This means it “could not — and do not — share [private images] with advertisers or business partners,” according to the company. Content shared via Snapchat is just as ephemeral as it was before the updates.
Snapchat explained in the post that it changed the policies to be more readable, to allow for in-app purchases like the counterintuitive Replays, and to make users aware about the information they have given the service. These were all routine updates tech companies make to their policies semi-regularly.
The reaction to these updates was also routine. Just look at when Instagram updated its policies to make it clear that it planned to use photos shared to its service in advertisements. People started to lose their minds, but as the Verge’s Nilay Patel explained, the problem didn’t lie with the policies themselves. It lied with Instagram’s inability to explain them and a lack of trust in Facebook.
Snapchat could have learned from the Instagram debacle. Instead of posting something on its blog when people started to freak out, it could’ve published the same exact blog post when it first made the changes. That might’ve helped people understand exactly what the company intended with its new policies.
There might be another problem: Making the policies readable to humans sounds good in theory, but in practice things could be just a little bit messier.
Nobody can be expected to read through all the terms of service and privacy policies for everything they use. That would require far more time than anyone wants to spend when they’re setting up their iPhone, for example, or signing up for the newest social tool for teens who want to indicate their down-ness.
So we click the “agree” button without knowing what’s happening, content to keep ourselves from drowning in a flood of legalese. Even if we did read many of these policies, it would be hard to tell exactly what companies are allowed to do, mostly because the vast majority of us aren’t familiar with applicable laws.
This is an obvious problem. Making policies and agreements easier to read is admirable. But when people realize exactly what they’re agreeing to, especially if those terms aren’t broken down like they are in Snapchat’s blog post, they’re likely to respond with the fear Snapchat’s users showed after these updates.
It would be easier for tech companies to keep the legalese and prevent their users from ever understand what they’ve agreed to until scandal breaks out. The companies are damned if their policies are inscrutable to normal people, and damned if they make them more readable but people misinterpret them.
Snapchat has learned this the hard way. Some of the blame lies with the company — as I said, it could’ve saved itself a headache by publishing yesterday’s blog post earlier — but a lot of it lies with us for not knowing what we’ve agreed to in the past. Welcome to the wonders of modern technology.