Why Terms of Service is the Biggest Lie on the Internet

By David Knight |

What’s the biggest lie on the Web? “This is my picture.” “Just give us your bank details and we’ll transfer that money right over.” “Worst. Article. Ever.” Or how about: “I have read and agree to the terms”?

Let’s face it, not many of us actually bother to read the terms and conditions we are required to accept when using online services; nor do we even scan the updated terms of service for platforms we use every day. But does it really matter? One person who thinks it does is Hugo Roy, who wants digital dwellers to be able to take a look at the dirty secrets behind their favourite products.

He helped set up Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (ToS;DR) to shed some light on the complexities of ToS and privacy policies in terms of copyright, data collection, data use, third-party tracking, ads and government control. The ultimate idea is to make the legal details as simple to understand as creative commons licenses.

And Hugo, an economics law student at the Sciences Po in Paris, was in Berlin for Campus Party recently to explain his project, which was founded in June. It describes itself as a user rights initiative which rates and labels the terms and privacy policies of websites from Class A, very good, to Class E, very bad – similar to washing machine energy ratings.

“As a child I was told not to lie,” Hugo said, “but on the Web we lie all the time and no one seems to worry about it.” That lie, of course, is saying you have read something when you have not. But why don’t we read the ToS?

Very Boring and Extremely Long

In great part it because they are very boring and extremely long. For example, Hugo revealed that the iTunes store terms and conditions adds up to 62 pages. The Web’s top 75 sites have ToS with an average of 2,500 words. It would mean every single person spending 76 working days just reading them – and even then, not necessarily understanding them.

And how about this: The iTunes ToS is longer than MacBeth; Paypal’s is longer than Hamlet.

Hugo added: “I think this it totally flawed and I think we should fix it; this is the aim of our project.”

The problems, he argues, stem from the fact that back in the 1980s, everybody was using propriety software, as opposed to the free software community that exists now, with the accompanying move away from non-disclosure agreements towards general public licenses. But there are ways, he says, to combat what he sees as overzealous and unnecessary rights grabs.

Hugo Roy at Campus Party

“Terms of service is just a tool; just a contract. Contracts are something lawyers use all the time – that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do about it. There is no value in a contract if no one agrees to it.”

ToS;DR summarizes the terms into the most important points identified by the people involved in the process. For example, Twitpic has been put in Class E, meaning some serious concerns have been raised. Six points altogether have been flagged, including the fact that Twitpic seemingly takes credit for the work of its users (its partners “are required to […] attribute credit to Twitpic as the source”) and that deleted pictures aren’t really deleted (“Deleted images are only accessed in the event of a legal issue.”).

‘There is No Limitation’

The main argument is that online companies in general are demanding much more than they could ever need, with the ToS “basically giving Twitpic the right to exploit your content without you knowing about it.”

With content you create, be it photos, blog posts or even poetry, some services will ask you to give them a very broad license. “I’m still to find an example where they actually need a really full corporate license. With it, they can do whatever they want… there is no limitation. For me, it’s crazy.”

Other differing examples he gave included SoundCloud – a Class B ToS which gives you six weeks to make your mind up whether to accept newly-amended terms – and Twitter, which up till 2009 didn’t claim any corporate license to your tweets of photos, but simply encouraged users to create content and put it in the public domain. But then, in 2009, “they changed it to worldwide permissions for tweets and photos.”

In addition to corporate licensing, there are other issues with ToS. Do companies offer an opt out for cookies and tracking technologies? Are people concerned enough about security when it comes to cloud computing?

Whether or not you agree with Wikileaks, Hugo argues, the fact that it was being hosted one day and was gone the next is definitely a freedom of speech issue.

Traffic Lights System

But Hugo and the ToS;DR project are not the only ones focusing on the issue. Dan Duffy was also at Campus Party. A 21-year-old studying digital forensics at Staffordshire University, Dan was invited to the event through the I4DA project, the Innovation for the Digital Agenda. His winning idea was not dissimilar to ToS-DR: An app or a plug-in integrated into major browsers which summarizes terms of service and points out any potential threats to users’ digital rights, data protection and privacy.

It uses a traffic lights system with green, yellow and red (where red, as you might guess, indicates a ToS you should be worried about), and also caters for different technical abilities. In addition, ToS are checked against previous version.

Dan, who was part of a group giving their thoughts to the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes, told Silicon Allee after watching Hugo’s talk: “He is very passionate about this and I completely understand where he is coming from… I think it’s great what they are doing, but it would perhaps be better if we could push towards reaching out to various companies and get them more interested and willing to change how they do their ToS.

“Pointing the finger is a great start but collaboration with the companies involved could ensure that at the end of the day, there is some sort of mutual agreement with general users to ensure that ToS are both ethical and respectful to both parties.”

A Sharper-Eyed Minority

Dan also highlighted the case in 2010 when British video games shop Gamestation changed its terms and conditions as an April Fool’s joke to declare that it legally owned the soul of anyone who bought from it.

Some 88 percent of people actually agreed to this – with the sharper-eyed minority given a voucher for spotting the clause. The only real surprise was that it was as high as 12 percent.

In the time since I started researching this story, I’ve been much more aware of when ToS have popped up and I’ve been required to signal my agreement – but I still haven’t started actually reading them.

So whether you believe that companies are deliberately seeking to gain from unnecessary rights, or whether you think they are just minimizing their legal liabilities in a litigious world, surely the system needs to change – hell, even South Park has noticed this.