Shane BarnhillWednesday,9 January 2013

The Snap:

Every time that we, as consumers, join a new social network or online service, we acknowledge a provider’s Terms of Service (TOS), usually by checking a little box next to the button for registering a new account. Each TOS agreement represents a legal, binding contract between provider and consumer. And yet, we almost never read them, even though they sometimes literally stake claims to our immortal souls.

The Download:

The problem, of course, is that these agreements are not only too damn long for our decreasing attention spans, but they’re also filled with legal jargon that most us can’t fully understand. And really, who wants to spend money on legal fees to consult a lawyer before playing with the latest photo-filtering app? Oh, those filters are so pretty! This one looks so old-timey! Screw my legal rights! I must have this app NOW! Dopamine FTW!

But these two concerns — the obfuscation of legal rights, and the time constraints of modern life — are problematic in that they cause confusion for consumers and lead to headaches for companies (just ask Instagram). Thus, it’s time to demand both clarity and brevity for Terms of Service everywhere. We need a system for communicating terms — one that is visual, up-to-date, and easily accessible — but not one that is government-run, lest we be left with some Homeland Security-inspired jackassery. A privately-managed system would be preferable.

Perhaps the best attempt at solving this issue to date comes from Terms of Service Didn’t Read, a service which goes by the short name of “ToS;DR.” The nickname is a tribute the term “tl;dr,” which is a commonly-used abbreviation among Internet users for describing an article or blog post that is too long to read fully. ToS;DR purports to have vetted dozens of popular services or entities such as Twitter, Flickr, Dropbox and Apple.

But while ToS;DR is a nice attempt, it falls short in many ways. The criteria for rating each app/service/company are inconsistent. Popular apps — including, for crying out loud, Facebook — have yet to receive aggregate ratings. And users are required to step out of the normal flow of downloading apps in order to visit a third party site and view ratings.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and the solution is right under our noses (or, more accurately, our thumbs).

Instead of an independent third party, or a governmental entity, the most effective solution would be reliance on the gatekeepers of our mobile operating systems: Google (Android), Apple (iOS), Microsoft (Windows), and Amazon (for its forked version of Android that powers its Kindle line). And to a lesser extent, any consortium would benefit from the participation of Nokia (Symbian), RIM (BlackBerry), Mozilla (for its web-based OS), and other OS-makers.

As consumers spend more time accessing social networks and services via mobile devices and apps relative to laptop/desktop browsers, these companies are uniquely positioned to provide awareness of TOS ratings from the first moment that a consumer seeks out information (and onward). Think about it: we already have app ratings, which are available for users to peruse before downloading a mobile app. In the same way, we need a TOS rating system that highlights factors such as copyright licensing, use of personal information, and privacy settings. Consumers should be able to glance quickly at summary-level grades for each criterion in order to quickly understand their rights, as well as potential risks.

Can summary-level TOS ratings really work? They can, yes, but any system for summarizing Terms of Service would depend upon several factors. I will cover how to make a TOS rating system a reality in Part Two of Ending TOS BS, which I plan to post tomorrow. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts about a potential system by posting a comment below. Is this really a problem worth fixing? And would the tech titans that develop the world’s most popular operating systems be able to come together to make a solution work?

Hat Tips:

Terms of Service Didn’t Read, The Economist, The New York Times, Social Times, Image Credit: Flickr 


Take Action!


  1. […] terms need to be as broad as possible in order to limit liability and encourage innovation. But in Part One of Ending Terms of Service (TOS) BS, I describe why the overly verbose TOS agreements that accompany social networks and online […]

Subscribe to get updates delivered to your inbox