Terms of Service; Didn’t Read

Terms of Service; Didn't ReadWe all do it. We’ve pressed that button saying that we’ve read and agreed to the terms of service. And have we read them? We have not. Of course we haven’t read them. Who has the time? It’s ridiculous.

A new site called Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (or ToS;DR) goes some way towards addressing the Internet’s most ubiquitous lie. As the organisers describe it:

ToS;DR aims at creating a transparent and peer-reviewed process to rate and analyse Terms of Service and Privacy Policies in order to create a rating from Class A to Class E.

The end result will be a rating for company’s terms of service and some idea of where issues lie. The project is crowd-sourced and funded by donation, much like Wikipedia. Thus far they’ve worked out a consistent rating system and started looking at some companies’ data. Each company’s terms gets a series of badges, either + Good,  Mediocre, × Alert, or  Informative; depending on how fair they are compared to other services. In total the company’s terms get an overall rating.

Right now the only company with a Class E, or very bad, rating is Twitpic whose terms, amongst other issues, allow Twitpic to sell your content on without giving you credit. Nice.

ToS;DR is a good idea and could lead to more fully informed decision-making. The core issue that it cannot address, though, is that terms of service are not presented as open to negotiation. Even knowing there are issues you only have a choice between proceeding in full knowledge of the problems or not using the service. I think most people just say yes and get on with things in the expectation that the chances of a problem arising are so very low as to be almost meaningless.

In some ways that is highlighted by a related project, TOSback, which keeps track of 56 major Internet organisations’ terms of service and alerts you when they change. Interesting academic enterprise, for example GoDaddy has changed theirs 61 times in six years, but not something I care about seeing on a regular basis.

None of which changes the fact that when you press that “I agree” button you’re agreeing to everything in those terms of service. Ignorance is no defence. So anything which sheds lights on what is buried in the jungle of legal text must be a good thing. If absolutely nothing else that light might persuade the company involved to make their terms fairer.

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