Have you ever read Facebook’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy? How about Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or any of the many other social networking sites you likely interact with?

Those user agreements are not just a formality in the registration process. They are legally binding contracts between you and the company, which apply whether you read and understood the whole thing or not.

A lawyer who has read many of these documents explains some of the little pieces you missed, using Instagram as an example.

Instagram’s Terms of Service is a long document, most of which is pretty straightforward and reasonably fair. You agree not to harass other users, not to try to hack their code, and other things that I think we can all agree are pretty necessary to keep things functioning.

The licensing section, though, is what I’d like to examine a little more closely. Particularly, this paragraph:

Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, subject to the Service’s Privacy Policy, available here http://instagram.com/legal/privacy/, including but not limited to sections 3 (“Sharing of Your Information”), 4 (“How We Store Your Information”), and 5 (“Your Choices About Your Information”).

That’s pretty clear, right? Well, maybe not.

Here, in one sentence, is what you’ve just agreed to: “You’ve just granted Instagram the right to do anything at all with your photos, without ever paying you a dime for any of it.”

But that’s not all.

Instagram and the others are not non-profit, public services. They are trying to make a lot of money. And since you didn’t give them any, the companies find other ways: “They provide a service for free, and in return you give them some information about you, which they sell to advertisers.”

Whether you know it or not, your data is pretty valuable stuff. Your browsing history provides a lot of information about you and, through the use of cookies and other technologies, Instagram and others are able to collect and share those particulars with anyone willing to pay for it.

The privacy policy for these services often talk about “anonymizing” your data, removing any specific information about you before passing it along to a third party. However, there are no promises.

Does Instagram anonymize data in this way? Probably so, although it’s difficult if not impossible to verify that. But under the terms laid out in Instagram’s TOS, they are under no obligation to do so, and if they suddenly decided to stop and just straight-up sell all your personal info to advertisers, (1) they would be perfectly within their legal rights, and (2) you would probably never know about it.

Ok, if I just delete my account, all will be well, right? Probably not.

But under the TOS, Instagram is perfectly free to keep sharing those photos regardless of whether they’re deleted. The TOS is most likely worded that way to cover those times when a user deletes something, but cached copies continue to appear for a while. Nonetheless, the intent is irrelevant when the language is clear, and that language in the TOS is unambiguous.

Although this post (on a blog for photographers) examines Instagram, the terms of service and privacy policies on other social media sites are very similar, if not the same in the case of Facebook which owns Instagram. And the writer is not recommending you abandon these services.

Nothing I’ve written here is meant to say that you shouldn’t use Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, or any of the others. I use them myself, and just like you, when I signed up I clicked “OK” without reading the user agreement. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a moment to examine why you’re using them and what you’re getting out of it, and consider how you can prepare now for contingencies that may arise down the road.

I’m not suggesting you quit either.

However, knowing what you’ve agreed to with a simple click of the mouse/tap of the screen is always a good thing. And once you understand, explain it to your students, colleagues, and your own children as well. They deserve to know what they’ve legally agreed to as well.