Terms & Conditions: If Instagram has your knickers in a twist, Flickr might untwist ’em

terms and conditions flickr privacy policy

What are you really agreeing to when you click that fateful “agree” button? Terms & Conditions cuts out the legal lingo to spell it out in plain English.

You can feel it, right? That electricity? That buzz? I sure can, down to my bones – the gripping vibrations of a terms of service scandal.

I’m talking, of course, about Instagram, which last week managed to upset the photo-taking hordes with tweaks to its site governance documents that seemed to imply that it could sell users photos or sell companies the right to put user photos in ads. Instagram says that’s not true, it won’t do either of those things. And it has since updated its terms in an attempt to remove the “confusion” about what its terms mean.

Because Instagram’s terms have been picked over to death, we’ve decided to instead tackle what many consider to be Instagram’s closest competitor: Flickr, which just happened to release a brand new (and excellent) mobile app right before the Insta-PR-meltdown. Let’s jump right in.

Terms of Service

The first thing to know about Flickr’s terms of service is that they don’t just apply to Flickr; they apply to all services owned and operated by Yahoo, Flickr’s parent company. So when you agree to Flickr’s terms, you’re actually agreeing to Yahoo’s terms.

For the sake of simplicity, I will address the issues here in the context of Flickr. But keep in mind that they aren’t limited to just the photo-sharing service.

Mind the youngsters

Just this week, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission approved updates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act COPPA), which prohibits the collection of personal data from children under the age of 13 without explicit parental consent. This law has been in place for more than a decade, and Yahoo has done more than most to ensure its compliance with the so-called COPPA Rule.

In doing so, Yahoo’s terms make explicit that anyone under 18 under may not use Flickr or other Yahoo services on their own. Instead, Yahoo allows parents to sign their kids up under a Yahoo Family Account.

“When you create a Yahoo Family Account and add your child to the account, you certify that you are at least 18 years old and that you are the legal guardian of the child/children listed on the Yahoo! Family Account,” read the terms. “By adding a child to your Yahoo! Family Account, you also give your child permission to access many areas of the Yahoo! Services …”

Impose all the rules!

Yahoo has a massive list of rules for what users can and cannot do on Flickr or any other Yahoo property. Most of these boil down to: Don’t break any laws (everything from no harassment to no exposing information that could be used for insider trading). Don’t spam anyone. And don’t infringe on any copyrights. (The full list is under section 6. Member Conduct.)

There is one rule, however, that is entirely outdated. Yahoo’s terms mandate that you may not “disrupt the normal flow of dialogue, cause a screen to ‘scroll’ faster than other users of the Yahoo Services are able to type, or otherwise act in a manner that negatively affects other users’ ability to engage in real time exchanges.” This rule dates back to a time when chat rooms were far more prevalent, and was meant to keep people from screwing up conversations. No big deal, but it’s not really necessary these days.

If any of the content you upload to Flickr breaks any of Yahoo’s rules, “or is otherwise objectionable,” the company reserves the right to delete the content based on its own opinions about the content. That said, Flickr does not impose many rules aside from stuff that breaks the law. So if you’ve got a gigabyte of artistic nudes to show off, go ahead and upload.

Speaking of pictures…

Unlike Instagram, Yahoo is fairly explicit about how it may use your photos. Rather than include one ambiguous, knotty sentence about them, the company lays out in rather extraordinary detail when and how it may use your pictures. For example, if you upload pictures to Flickr group (or other Yahoo Group), you give Yahoo “the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Yahoo! Services solely for the purposes of providing and promoting the specific Yahoo! Group to which such Content was submitted or made available.” In other words, this license is very limited, and your Yahoo Group photos can’t be used outside of the groups you choose to be a part of.

As for non-Group photos, Yahoo is equally clear: “With respect to photos, graphics, audio or video you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Yahoo! Services other than Yahoo! Groups, the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Yahoo! Services solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made available.” That means Yahoo can’t use or modify your photos in ways you never intended. (Instagram, in contrast, can do that.) This is good.

Now the bad stuff

While Yahoo’s terms regarding content are good for users, not everything in the terms is. Specifically, Yahoo reserves the right to change its terms anytime without tell you about it. Further, Yahoo says that it can delete, limit access to, or suspend your account (Flickr, email, Yahoo Messenger, whatever) at anytime “without prior notice.”

We saw how this language in a terms of service can go awry back in October, when Amazon allegedly deleted a users’ entire Kindle library without giving a concrete reason why, and without prior notice. Legally speaking, Yahoo has the same power.

Oh, and then there’s this: “A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF USERS MAY EXPERIENCE EPILEPTIC SEIZURES WHEN EXPOSED TO CERTAIN LIGHT PATTERNS OR BACKGROUNDS ON A COMPUTER SCREEN OR WHILE USING THE YAHOO! SERVICE.” (Lawyers put terms in all caps to show that they’ve made every effort to inform people about a specific thing.) So, you know, keep that in mind.