Shane BarnhillFriday,11 January 2013

The Snap:

Companies that build online services and/or apps need to cover their asses with legal terms, and those 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 services are actually problematic for both consumers and companies. Furthermore, I make the case that producers of the world’s top mobile operating systems — particularly Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon — are uniquely positioned to support a concise, visual TOS rating system that would clarify these terms. Before reading my thoughts below, I’d encourage you to first check out that post.

The Download:

Given the conflicting needs for legal completeness and brief, clear communication, the question is: Can summary-level TOS ratings really work? I argue that they can. But to be successful, any system for summarizing Terms of Service would depend upon the following factors:

1. Collaboration between top operating system developers. Well, duh. A TOS rating system can only be successful if it’s co-sponsored and espoused as a standard by the heavyweights: Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. The first three are especially important; if one defects or declines to implement a standard rating system, then the efficacy of any potential system is dubious. Not impossible, mind you, but more difficult.

2. A visual rating system. The whole point is to avoid reading a bunch of confusing legalize, right? Here’s a suggestion: 10 or fewer categories for each service/app, with stoplight-inspired green/yellow/red color indicators for each category. The text that accompanies each color is 140 characters or less. That’s it. Boil each section down to a color and a tweet’s worth of text. Any more than that, and you may as well read the damn terms. And all of the categories roll up to an overall score/color for a service.

3. Balancing self-regulation against consumer input. Ask anyone who has ever had to endure the wait associated with Apple’s period for reviewing new apps: we don’t need to add more cycle time to the process by adding a TOS review. While this isn’t an issue for all of the OS providers’ app stores (most notably, Google Play), it has to be a consideration. So instead of requiring each app store to author TOS ratings, we need a system that allows service developers to self-rate. These scores should be balanced against user ratings (as either separate scores or a combined score).

4. Consistent criteria for rating services. Social media services get rated on the same 10 (or fewer) criteria. File storage services (e.g. Dropbox) get rated on those same 10 criteria. Photo-filtering apps? The same damn criteria. This way, consumers will know what to look for when evaluating new apps and services, and they can scan the color codes for the 1-2 factors that are most important to them. If anonymity is your thing, then you might only consider apps with green ratings for anonymity that allow you to participate under a pseudonym (e.g. Twitter). If control over how your content is used, then Flickr — and its granular controls — may be for you, while Facebook — which uses your Likes in ads — might not be. The point is, consistent criteria will enable informed decision-making, and will help eliminate confusion.

Is it really any more complicated than that? Perhaps I’m missing a critical success factor or two (which you can always suggest in the comments section below, hint hint), but I’d wager that these four items would get us a most of the way toward a vastly-improved system for communicating Terms of Service.

In conclusion, while companies need to protect themselves from a legal standpoint, they also need to communicate Terms of Service in a method that eliminates user confusion and thus prevents future backlashes based on misunderstandings. But these companies need help, and it’s time for today’s tech titans to step up and work together, in order to help both businesses and consumers.

Hat Tips:

Terms of Service Didn’t Read, The New York TimesImage Credit: Flickr

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