Online Legal Agreements: What One Guy Found Out Wasn't Pretty

Jul 1, 2015 12:41:11 PM

blog_post_header

For Guardian reporter Alex Hern, thinking about all the small print on the Internet made him want to die... so he took seven days to read 146,000 words of various companies’ Terms of Service, and the result? It made him want to die even more.

If you have ever visited the limitless World Wide Web, you have probably agreed to websites’ terms and conditions without even realizing it. Or maybe you did realize it and just didn’t care.

For example, security expert Mikko Hyppönen’s company F-Secure set up a free WiFi hotspot in the heart of London’s financial district just to see if people would use it. Little did users know that the terms and conditions of the network included a “Herod clause,” which signs away the recipient’s first-born child over to F-Secure for the duration of eternity. Six people checked yes.

Hern explored all of Apple’s terms and conditions surmounting 21,586 words that included iCloud’s all or nothing deal stating, “…modifications and additional terms and conditions will be communicated to you and, if accepted, will be effective immediately and will be incorporated into this Agreement. In the event that you refuse to accept such changes, Apple will have the right to terminate this Agreement and your account.”

If you don’t like the terms, Apple isn’t having it.

BT establishes lofty trust ensuring users that, “We do not guarantee either the quality of the service or that the service will be available at all times.”

That’s a lot similar to putting fresh groceries away without knowing if everything you bought is going to be in the refrigerator when it is time to make dinner. You want cheeseburgers? Sorry, we only have buns and ketchup today.

The light at the end of the tunnel for Hern actually came from Google, YouTube, and Twitter’s Terms of Service, which he expected to be the worst off.

Google, “faced with never-ending scrutiny, from users as well as regulators, competitors and the press, the company responded by providing plain English terms of service.”

YouTube easily spelled out ownership of uploads, “Some of our Services allow you to upload, submit, store, send or receive content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.”

Twitter had similar rights written for users to understand, but its “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty free license” gives infinite leeway to do what they want with your content.

Chances are that these companies have altered their terms and conditions because of prior incidents involving viral claims that digital platforms aim to steal everyone’s material.

What’s worse is that, if users disagree with terms and conditions, there is no negotiating power. When setting up a new iPhone, if you don’t check yes, it does not offer a comment box to dispute what you dislike in their Terms of Use—it simply reloads and asks you to try again with the options remaining to be, “check yes or go home.”

The words making up a company’s Terms of Use should definitely be sound, but, additionally, poor design of a clickwrap agreement renders a business’ terms of use as unenforceable. And if the terms are unenforceable, creating and maintaining customer trust becomes a tad more daunting.

As a general rule, if something hurts so bad it makes you want to die, I highly suggest getting that checked out. If that involves clickwrap agreements and Terms of Service, a free website risk assessment from PactSafe might be in your near future. 

Amber Ferrari

Written by Amber Ferrari