You've just clicked 'I Agree' - but what have you actually agreed to?

When you agree to online terms of service, you are likely allowing your personal information to be shared - while signing away your legal rights to do anything about it. But that’s the just beginning ...

Most of us would never sign a contract without reading every word of it. But almost all of us routinely do exactly that when it comes to online agreements.

The recent decision by Twitter to ban Donald Trump, and to consign tens of thousands of QAnon accounts to the digital waste bin, has highlighted the power tech companies wield over consumers. 

Because those actions were legal by virtue of the terms and conditions none of us - including the former US president - bother to read. 

And that’s not surprising. Some agreements are literally as long as a Shakespeare play. Most are full of terminology that not only seems confusing - it’s meant to be confusing. And there is no legal requirement to prevent it.

qanon ban

One study found the average punter would need to devote 76 working days just to read all the online contracts they’ve agreed to. Another determined that, in order to understand a typical company’s terms, users would need 14 years of education.

Some of the fine print in standard online agreements is just random nonsense. Did you know, for example, that iTunes users are forbidden from using the service to manufacture nuclear weapons? Or that Amazon’s cloud computing service can be used to fight a zombie apocalypse?

One study found the average punter would need  76 working days just to read all the online contracts they’ve agreed to.

According to a recent New York Times report, those clauses are in fact jokes, buried deep in the legalese of those apps’ terms of use. But they stand as eloquent evidence of users’ habitual failure to read the fine print.

What we typically agree to - unknowingly

Here are some of the provisions most of us have at some point agreed to:

  • Agreeing that you will be unable to delete your own account
  • Allowing companies the right to alter or claim credit for your creative work
  • Allowing companies to hold onto content even after you’ve deleted it
  • Giving away access to your full browsing history
  • Granting companies blanket indemnity against legal action

Then there are terms that are downright Orwellian, cunning ways to protect the company at the expense of users and/or employees. Some food delivery and ride-share companies, for example, require users to agree that their companies are not food delivery or ride-share companies. 

Another example? Non-US Uber users can only adjudicate disputes in the Netherlands. And just this month, a US court rapped Uber over the knuckles for hiding its terms in a hyperlink on page three of its new customer registration form - with no click-to-agree requirement.

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What’s more, nearly universally, online agreements allow companies to change their terms of service at will. 

And all of this is perfectly legal. Why? Tech companies say it’s because their policies are not mandatory. It’s up to customers to accept them or not. Yet so many of these services are so essential to conducting our lives that opting out simply isn’t feasible. 

So what’s the fix?

Right now, according to the Times, “the root problem is that consumers are simply out gunned…. At its core, the arrangement is unbalanced, putting the burden on consumers to read through voluminous, nonnegotiable documents, written to benefit corporations.”

Long-term, the solution needs to be a legal one - starting with rules requiring greater transparency and agreements written in plain English.

“If a company’s online service is open to 13-year-olds, as many are, then the terms of use need to be written so an eighth grader can understand them,” notes the Times. “That would be a step toward informed consent, allowing for the possibility that an eagle-eyed consumer catches something unconscionable.”

 

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, privacy, online agreements, terms of service

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