The biggest lie on the internet: “I have read and understood the terms of service”

On July 7, two US academics published a paper entitled “The Biggest Lie on the Internet: “Ignoring the privacy policies and terms of service policies of social networking services” which details an experiment they carried out on 543 students, asking them to open an account in a fictitious social network and then studying their responses to the terms and conditions of the site.

Among the terms of service were clauses such as the total and unconditional passing on of all personal information to the NSA, as well as users handing over their first born child to the company. Needless to say, 98 percent of students didn’t bother to read the clauses before opening their accounts. Of the 543 students, 399 didn’t even go through the motions of reading the terms of service. The 141 that did bother to, scanned them for a maximum of 73 seconds: the time required to read them properly was estimated at around 45 minutes.

The results of the experiment will surprise nobody: most of us do exactly the same every time we download an app or subscribe to a new service online.

But let’s be honest, who in their right mind is going to spend 45 minutes parsing a document in legalese, especially non-English speakers? We aren’t presented with these kinds of terms and conditions every time we buy a product in a shop, are we?

The problem is that we still think that the internet is somehow different to the real world, when in fact it makes up a greater than ever part of the real world.

But what are companies supposed to do? If they don’t spell out their terms and conditions explicitly they will soon find the lawyers on their trail.

At the same time, there are unscrupulous businesses and individuals out there prepared to hide abuses within hard-to-understand clauses giving them a get out in the event of problems, as well as permitting them access to data or rights that aren’t theirs. Either way, matters where common sense would prevail in the real world seem to be extraordinarily complicated on the internet.

The myriad hoaxes that have prompted many people to copy and paste absurd legal notices on their Facebook walls as though this was of any use is the least of all this, but it’s still a worrying sign.

Does it have to be like this? iTunes’ terms of service consists of no less than 56 pages of legalese. Does anybody really believe that users are going to read all of them, one by one, analyzing each point?Initiatives such as ToS;DR, launched in 2012, which aimed to create a service that would carefully read and evaluate terms of service to help users disappeared without trace. In the meantime, we’re all complicit in the internet’s biggest lie: I have read and understood the terms and conditions of service.

Surely the time has come to impose a bit of common sense and for us to understand that the internet is increasingly, if not already, very much the real world for growing numbers of people?


(En español, aquí)