Why Not Reading Terms of Service Is Okay

Terms of Service (ToS): the contracts we all agree to, but never read. In fact, 91% of people in the United States simply click “I agree” without scrolling through these obscure contracts.

Source: icanbarelydraw.com

A ToS agreement is simply a legal contract between a user and a service provider, like a website or an app. For the most part, ToS outline user rights and responsibilities, like payment details, expected conduct, and privacy policies.

Privacy policies are where ToS become complicated. It is vital for users to know what personal data will be collected and how it will be used (read: how companies will profit), but these contracts make it almost grueling for the average user to understand.

Take a look at this sentence:

“We may share your private personal data with such service providers subject to obligations consistent with this Privacy Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures, and on the condition that the third parties use your private personal data only on our behalf and pursuant to our instructions (service providers may use other non-personal data for their own benefit).” -Twitter Privacy Policy, 3.2 Service Providers

Confused? You’re supposed to be.

Most experts recommend that these ToS read at a basic 8th-grade level for best accessibility. Yet, on average, the complex legalese of ToS requires 14 years of education to understand — reading at the same level as academic journals.

This veil of obscurity serves twofold: first, users are less likely to read contracts; second, the illusion of informed consent is established. Essentially, companies receive legal protection to collect personal information, despite purposefully misleading users into signing away their rights.

Now, let’s say you are able to fully comprehend a ToS and choose to read every contract you came across in one year. In 2008, this would have taken 76 full working days; in 2020, no doubt it would be higher. The mere length and time it would take to read every one is impractical for the average person.

“How long it would take to read the terms of service agreements of popular online services” Source: Visual Capitalist

Some sites have shorter ToS, like Google’s, which spans a mere 5,000 words compared to Microsoft’s massive 15,000 words (or 63 minutes!). But, length also poses a problem between explicitness and ambiguity. Sure, Google’s is shorter, but this gives the company more wiggle room to collect data through vaguely worded policies.

Not to mention, the design of the interface can encourage people to just click “I agree.” When presented with a polite “yes/no” option, a 2010 study showed that people are more likely to click no. However, many ToS agreements forefront “I agree” over backing out of the contract.

Steam does not provide a separate “cancel” option. Source: Steam

ToS present the typical “opt-in, opt-out” stance pervading most ethical issues online; that is, nobody is forcing users to agree to ToS, right? However, this argument is flawed because users fundamentally have less power than the sites they want to use — imagine if a concerned user tried to negotiate the ToS with FaceBook. Further, companies can change the contract at any time, and they are not obligated to inform users. This means service providers can retroactively collect more personal information about a user with their legal “consent.”

Companies have no incentive to change ToS legibility or design. It provides legal protection and loopholes in case they are sued, allows them to collect whatever data they want with impunity, and discourages users from being informed. In the end, the burden of responsibility is placed on individual users to know their own rights, not on the company to be transparent. So, it’s okay if you don’t read your next ToS; they are not meant to be read or understood.

It’s impossible to be truly informed about what you are agreeing to in a ToS, but some mitigation is possible. Following privacy watch groups can force companies to respond to consumer demand. Also, some tools rank specific ToS on clarity and can explain exactly what data the service provider will collect. ToS can improve, but as long as our online activity is profitable, informed consent remains far off.

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All opinions and views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of humanID.

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