Accept. Agree. Submit.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve clicked on buttons like these, agreeing to online terms of service that I haven’t actually reviewed. I’m hardly unusual: According to a 2017 survey by Deloitte, 91% of consumers routinely accept online service agreements without actually reading them.
What might seem like a sensible way of saving time turns out to be a big problem when we suddenly discover what we’ve agreed to. Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of Facebook users’ data took the public by surprise in part because so few people knew that Facebook’s terms of service allowed third-party developers to access not only their data, but their friends’ data too.
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With so much of our personal data, communications and creative output now flowing through online services, failing to read user agreements amounts to giving up control over both our privacy and our content. Online services have little incentive to develop policies that are in their users’ interests when they know that most users aren’t even glancing at their terms of service.
As essential as it is for us to start reading user agreements, that is only going to happen if service agreements are restructured so that they’re easier for us to digest and absorb—and if we have ways to opt out of the most problematic provisions. That means rethinking the entire terms-of-service model—and prioritizing what’s good for consumers.
Here are my ideal solutions for companies to make their terms of service comprehensible and consumer-friendly.
Get rid of all-or-nothing agreements
Right now, user agreements are an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If you’ve concluded that you must get access to a specific platform (like LinkedIn) or online service (like Google Drive), there is no point in reading every paragraph of the user agreement. Even if you disagree with parts of the agreement, your only option is to opt out of using the service altogether. Few of us are willing to do that.
A better approach would be to make agreements modular, so that we can opt out of specific provisions that, for instance, let companies resell our data, republish our content, track our location or target us with ads. Suddenly, we’d have a reason to read through agreements in their entirety, so we could decide which parts we do and don’t want to accept. Even more important, our decisions would give companies valuable feedback on their policies, so that they could organize their business models around users’ actual preferences on key questions.
Write like a human
Even modular service agreements will go unread if they are written in the impenetrable legalese that is still the norm in most terms of service. These documents need to be rewritten so that they’re readable by nonlawyers, or at least offer a readable explanation for every provision. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation helps, because it requires that privacy policies be written in plain language. Now we need to ensure that every part of a service agreement adheres to that standard—not just privacy policies.
For instance, YouTube asks us to “affirm, represent, and warrant that you own or have the necessary licenses, rights, consents, and permissions to publish Content you submit; and you license to YouTube all patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright or other proprietary rights in and to such Content for publication on the Service pursuant to these Terms of Service.”
Instead, it might simply say, “You guarantee that this content is yours to post, and you’re allowing us to display it on our site.” (YouTube declines to comment.)
Some third-party software is trying to fill the gap for now. Terms of Service; Didn’t Read provides a browser extension that offers an analysis of terms of service from about a hundred sites such as Facebook, YouTube and SoundCloud. Once you install the extension, you’ll see a little colored beacon in your browser bar whenever you visit one of the sites the extension has rated, letting you know you can click for an explanation and rating of that site’s terms. I’d like to see an expanded version that can explain any terms of service that pop up on my screen.
Learn from the past
A modular approach would also make it easier for people to read terms of service if we knew which provisions we’ve agreed to in the past and which we’ve rejected.
Imagine this: You find a new social network that you want to join, and it has the usual three-page, 40-clause user agreement. But you’re reviewing this agreement using a browser extension that records the parts of agreements you accept and which ones you veto.
So, as you’re looking over this social network’s deal, any provision that is substantially similar to something you’ve previously approved is presented in green, and anything that is similar to something you’ve previously rejected is marked in red. If there are provisions that don’t look like anything you’ve seen before, those are highlighted in yellow—so you can focus your attention on those. It is far more realistic for people to read terms of service when they can concentrate on the few parts that really deserve their attention.
Find friends with similar tastes
Just as Amazon and Netflix can suggest what you’d like to buy or watch based on what users “like you” are doing, a smart terms-of-service system would be able to anticipate your preferences based on how similar people respond to specific agreements and provisions.
How would it work? Whenever we visit a site, a third-party data-collection service would track which clauses in a terms-of-service agreement we agree to, and which we reject. (Before you worry about privacy concerns: The collecting would be handled by a disinterested nonprofit with no stake in selling user information.)
Then the collection service would crunch the numbers to figure out which other users are similar to us based on choices we’ve made. From there, the service might tell us that “Other people who chose not to share their location data rejected this clause about getting updates by email.” It would make the work of reading terms-of-service agreements a lot easier.
How to get there
Creating a system of modular, customizable, readable and responsive agreements is a big job, and it will require big changes to the legal, technical and customer-service approaches used by online platforms.
But the Cambridge Analytica scandal has made it clear that companies face huge public-relations and financial risks when users don’t have a clear picture of how their data is being used, and users will never get that clear picture as long as terms-of-service agreements remain long and unreadable.
Offering better user agreements could and should become a competitive advantage for companies. Indeed, there is no better way for companies to show that they care about their users than to give them direct and granular control over what they agree to. That is something I’d sign up for.
Ms. Samuel is a technology researcher and the author of “Work Smarter with Social Media.” She can be reached at [email protected]