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The Snapchat Trap

You can’t set a timer for the app’s arbitration clause (but you can opt out of it!)

by Kevin Peek

Self-destructing images and videos, once thought to only be found in the “Mission: Impossible” universe, can easily be created and dispersed by individuals through the popular social networking app Snapchat. Owned by Snap Inc., the app has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a project by Stanford University students. During its half-decade existence, it has grown from a popular messaging app among teens to a juggernaut that boasts a self-reported 10 billion daily views of short videos.

While the app certainly provides a fair amount of fun and entertainment (filters, anyone?), many users may be unaware of the contract that they agree to with Snap Inc. simply by downloading and using it. The app’s terms of service were most recently updated Jan. 10, 2017. Given that there are reportedly over 150 million daily users on Snapchat, many people will be affected by the new terms. But what changes were made, and why should users care?

First, it is important to understand Snapchat’s eventful 2016. Just like any large up-and-coming company preparing for an initial public offering, Snapchat is entangled in various lawsuits. One alleges that Snapchat routinely serves sexually explicit content to minors without warning. In another suit, Snapchat’s “speed filter” was blamed in a highway crash, though this case was recently dismissed.

Many of the changes implemented Jan. 10 were introduced to give Snap Inc. a smoother 2017. Users must now be at least 13 years of age to sign up and access a Snapchat user account. The terms also contain a “Rights You Grant to Us” section which is, unsurprisingly, longer than the section placed before it titled “Rights We Grant to You.” The rights that users grant to Snapchat allow the company more control and longer use time of images that users introduce into the app. This could include camera roll images and videos of vacation sent to friends. Snapchat now has the right and ability to use these images for marketing, research and other reasons. Further, Snapchat has the right to use your image and likeness, and even allows access to these by any third-party business partners.

The biggest change to the contract is found further down in the terms of service: arbitration. Simply explained, this section requires all disputes between a user and Snap Inc. to be resolved through arbitration, rather than through the U.S. or state court system with a bench trial, jury trial or even a class-action lawsuit. This new dispute resolution amendment is not limited to disputes from Jan. 10 forward. A clause later in the section states that “all claims and disputes” also includes claims and disputes that “arose between us before the effective date of these Terms.”

Without the court system, what are you left with? An arbitration is led by an arbitrator, an appointed individual independent from both sides. Imagine a courtroom drama without all of the formalities and, frankly, the drama. There are many benefits to arbitration, including the fact that it is cheaper, faster and simpler than litigation. Further, arbitration proceedings are usually kept private and the final resolution is often confidential. With that said, there are many negatives, especially to an individual facing a company. In the court system, if the decision that is made is not to your liking, you have the right to appeal. That is not the case in arbitration. A majority of the time, you will be stuck with the final decision without any means of recourse. Also, while arbitration is cheaper, unless you are Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, the odds are that the company can stay in the arbitration and spend more money than you can, which gives the company the option and ability to strong-arm any disputers.

Even though arbitration results are not binding legal precedent, they can be used to influence similar matters. Keep in mind that just because a contract says that disputing parties “may” proceed through arbitration, it does not necessarily mean that you will be given a choice. Simply put, if Snapchat wishes to proceed through arbitration, then you have no choice but to proceed.

You do have the option to opt-out of the Snap Inc. arbitration agreement, but it must be done within 30 days of agreeing with the new terms. This means that if you signed into your Snapchat account on Jan. 10, 2017, then you have until Feb. 9, 2017, to opt-out of arbitration by sending an email or letter to Snap Inc.

More often than not, clicking “accept” on constantly updating terms of service can be harmless and just a formality. However, every now and then companies will introduce changes into their terms of service that are worth knowing and reading over. It is important to stay aware of what rights you are giving to different companies. Users must decide if giving Snap Inc. the rights to images and videos is worth the few seconds of amusement from face swapping your face onto a pineapple.

Kevin Peek is a licensed lawyer in the state of Missouri who resides and works in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter for commentary on all things legal and interesting at @Attorney_Peek.

This information is intended as general information about the law and legal system. It is not to be considered as legal advice for your specific situation.

A version of this piece was originally published on kevinpeek.wordpress.com.

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