New Site Grades Those Pesky ‘Terms of Service’ Agreements You Never Read

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We’ve all done it — you’re about to register on a new website, you come to the “terms of service” agreement, and your eyes immediately glaze over. Instead of viewing it as the legally binding document that it is, you see it as just a final nuisance standing between you and the latest version of iTunes. So without reading it, you click “agree” and move on.

Some would call ignoring a terms of service agreement lazy, but it’s also practical. A 2008 study by Carnegie Mellon professors found that the average Internet user encounters almost 1,500 privacy policies a year, each about 2,500 words in length. None of us are going to wade through that amount of legalese anytime soon. That’s why one website is offering to do the line-by-line reading for you, offer a quick and dirty version of the main points, and even grade websites on the fairness of their user agreements.

Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (a play on the popular Internet phrase “too long; didn’t read”) aims to create a database analyzing the fairness of user agreements from Google, Facebook, and all of our other beloved Internet data miners. The recently launched project is open for anyone to contribute. You can just pick a website, find the terms, and submit them for consideration in a Google Group. Like Wikipedia, the site functions on the belief that group consensus will coalesce into truth.

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Hugo Roy, the leader of the project and a self-proclaimed “hacktivist,” says terms of service agreements are the biggest lie on the web. “Their legal value is based on the fact that they get ‘accepted’ by users, while almost none of them even bother to read them,” he said in an email.

So far the site has gathered information on more than 30 popular websites. Sites can be rated in categories such as content ownership, use of tracking cookies, and terms of service readability. Only a few have been assigned grades so far. Search engine DuckDuckGo has earned an A because, unlike Google, it doesn’t track your searches. Meanwhile the Twitter-based photo-sharing app TwitPic earned an E, the lowest grade possible, because the company has the right to license your photos and sell them to media companies without your knowledge. Other tech companies have buried more interesting surprises in their terms, such as blocking the ability to file class-action lawsuits.

“There’s a systemic problem there,” Roy says, “and it boils down to the fact that relationships between users and services are very uneven, and sometimes also unfair.”

In addition to being hard to read, terms of service agreements can be troublesome because they can change at any moment. “There’s no real rulebook about this,” says Lillie Coney, the associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group based in Washington. “The one you see today might not be the one that’s there tomorrow, and it could really have a huge impact.”

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Facebook — yet to be graded by the new site — has grown notorious over the years for fiddling with its terms of service and privacy policies. In 2009 the Internet erupted when a change to the terms implied that Facebook owned all the content users uploaded forever, even if they closed their accounts. Facebook quickly changed their policy and enacted a new system where users could vote on changes to terms of service policies. However, 30% of users, or around 270 million people, must vote on a policy for their decision to be binding. When users rejected a policy change this past June, Facebook enacted it anyway. Meanwhile, Google is paying the Federal Trade Commission a $22 million fine for allegedly violating an agreement to protect users’ privacy.

As the Internet’s major players continue to shift their stance on user privacy, grassroots campaigns like ToS;DR and others push for more transparency in user agreements. The Swedish website CommonTerms is advocating for terms of service to be explained through a standard set of privacy icons instead of the anachronistic blocks of hard-to-read text that are common. Another site, TOSBack, tracks the changes websites make to their terms, which can be as often as once a month for a company like Facebook.

With users already being thrown too much information in their daily web routines, simplicity is likely the only solution that will make people care about user agreements. Roy hopes that ToS;DR will help the development of an easy-to-understand set of standards, similar to how the Creative Commons License has made it easy for the average Internet user to understand how to deal with and distribute copyrighted material.

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“This is not about everybody becoming lawyers,” Roy said. “Just like you don’t have to be a copyright expert to use a Creative Commons license, it shouldn’t require being a full-time experienced lawyer to use web services.”