Read Before You Agree: How to Understand Online Terms of Service

May 1, 2018

12:45 pm

The security of the internet is finally getting its moment in the spotlight, with online giants being scrutinized as never before. And with data breaches, online hacks, and everyone’s favorite social media giant run amok, it’s about time.

However, while internet users are finally thinking about protecting their personal information, most people still fall at the first hurdle: actually reading the terms of service before creating an online account. Doing so can be one of the most basic preventative measures for protecting your data, and let’s be honest, no one does it.

Unfortunately, these unimaginably long blocks of text can feel as if they’re designed to sneak unreasonable terms past you, no matter how diligent a reader you are. We examine some of the worst offenders, and explain how you can better navigate tricky online terms.

Hidden Terms of Service

As most internet users will admit, terms of service cover everything but effectively mean nothing. After a quick scroll and a single click, the monolithic wall of text is usually a distant memory. Unfortunately, some of the biggest companies regularly drop in a few key phrases that can allow them seemingly unmitigated access to your personal information.

Instagram

In 2012, Instagram made a slight, albeit huge, change to its terms of service. The Facebook-owned photo-sharing app altered a few words, which made it possible for Instagram to sell user photos to advertisers without alerting them. Fortunately, after some serious customer backlash, Instagram revoked its own privileges, but not after losing a hefty portion of its users.

Twitter

In 2017, Twitter changed its terms of service to provide a new address for international users. Unfortunately, that led to people actually reading the terms of service as the new ones were flagged. This, in turn, led to the discovery that the social media giant was allowing any company, organization, or individual the right to do whatever they want with original content posting to Twitter.

And, unlike its photo-sharing counterparts above, Twitter stuck by its changes. So watch what you tweet!

Apple

Sometimes, it just isn’t enough to change your terms of service. In the case of Apple, it’s not even close. The tech giant behind the iPhone has a small clause in its terms of service that reads:

“Apple reserves the right at any time to modify this agreement and to impose new or additional terms.”

This may sound pretty standard, but it’s not. This phrase on its own allows Apple to change its terms of service to whatever it chooses. Don’t like the new terms? Then you can’t remain a customer. That’s right, as long as you keep using its service, you must agree.

While this may seem devious, Apple is far from alone in employing such wording. The “right to modify” is something of a classic clause and can crop up in all sorts of terms of service.

Want to check if a site or service you use has such a clause? Be prepared to do some serious reading…

Outrageous Length

So how are companies able to sneak these ever-important clauses in under the radar? Because they’re so darn long!

Facebook and iTunes both boast around 6000 words in their terms of service, which could hardly be considered light reading by even the most avid of readersEven PayPal falls victim to this trend, with a terms of service word count at 21,938, longer than the Shakespearean masterpiece of The Merchant of Venice, which is hardly known for its brevity.

Admittedly, there is a lot to get through when it comes to terms of services, but there has to be a line in the sand.

It hardly seems reasonable or transparent to imply that the only way users can fully understand how their data is being used is to read a lengthy legal document – that’s a huge amount of scrolling on a phone screen, for one thing.

Fortunately, there are a few tools that can help.

Helpful Tools for Online Terms

No one should be expected to read the equivalent of Hamlet before they start safely downloading Ariana Grande’s next album on iTunes. And, thanks to a few handy tools, you won’t have to sacrifice your online privacy just because you’re a slow or reluctant reader.

ToSDR

Understanding what you’re agreeing to in a company’s terms of service has never been easier thanks to Terms of Service Didn’t Read. The clever play on words (referencing the common internet slang “too long; didn’t read”) does exactly what you’d want out of a guide like this: it breaks things down into simple English.

“If nobody can individually read these terms, then we have to figure out a collective solution,” said Hugo Roy, one of the creators of ToSDR to Wired.

Through the expert use of bullet points, this website makes it easy to understand what companies like Google, YouTube, GitHub, Soundcloud, and dozens of other websites are doing when you create an account or use their services.

EULAlyzer

ToSDR is great for understanding the terms of service from reputable companies, but as many know, even the little guys want to get your personal information. So what are you supposed to do if you’re about to click agree on a terms of service that can’t be found on ToSDR? You use EULAlyzer, that’s what!

This downloadable program will thoroughly analyze any terms of service and extract any and all important information for comprehensive understanding. From pop-up ads to online history tracking, EULAlyzer will make sure you know exactly what you’re agreeing to before you click “OK.”

Read the Fine Print!

The tools above are undeniably helpful in the fight to protect your online privacy. However, there is nothing more valuable than knowledge, which is why understanding the terms of service can go a long way in promoting conscientious internet usage.

But, as we mentioned before, terms of service can feel like labyrinthian atrocities of nonsensical legal jargon. So, how could you possibly hope to understand them? Experts say that the key is to look out for a few key clauses regarding:

  • Whether your information will be shared with a third-party or affiliate
  • Your ability to opt out of that information sharing
  • Your right to sue and how that is affected by agreeing
  • Any mention of waivers or releases of information or rights

It’s also worth nothing anything listed IN ALL CAPS. Granted, a company will rarely try to hide anything in plain sight like that, but it’s likely an important section of the agreement that you should take note of.

Terms of service shouldn’t be locked away for lawyers alone to understand – it’s everyday internet users who are affected most by them. Protecting your personal information doesn’t have to be a full time profession, but even for amateurs, it should be a priority.

Read more about online security on TechCo

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Conor is a writer, comedian and world-renowned sweetheart. As the Senior Writer at Tech.Co, he’s written about everything from Kickstarter campaigns and budding startups to tech titans and innovative technologies. His background in stand-up comedy made him the perfect person to host Startup Night at SXSW and the Funding Q&A at Innovate! and Celebrate, posing questions to notable tech minds from around the world. In his spare time, he thinks about how to properly pronounce the word "colloquially." Conor is the Senior Writer at Tech.Co. You can email him at conor@tech.co.

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