How often have you scrolled to the bottom of the terms of service and just clicked “yes” when you are shopping online? If you are like most people, the answer is quite a few times. However, people are learning that when they click to agree, they are giving away far more than they would ever imagine.
How many people read the terms?
Research suggests that most people don’t read terms and conditions. A recent study involving 543 college students showed that only one-quarter looked at the fine print at all. In the study, students were invited to join a nonexistent social network called NameDrop. Most never looked at the terms before clicking to join. Even the most thorough students spent roughly a minute scanning over the terms of service, which contained thousands of words.
While most of the terms were standard, deep in paragraph 2.3.1, members agreed to give NameDrop their first-born children. While NameDrop does not exist and this agreement is illegal and thus invalid, the study proved its hypothesis: no one reads the terms.
Does it matter if you read them?
Regardless of whether you should or shouldn’t read every word in these agreements, it would simply be impossible for most of us to read every End User License Agreement (EULA) or Terms of Service (TOS). According to The Guardian, it would take roughly 250 hours to read the average American’s digital contracts every year. Additionally, it may not be reasonable to even try.
Networks like Twitter, Google and Facebook are extremely valuable to many people, especially those who use these platforms as part of their jobs. Professionals whose responsibilities include research or sharing information would often be unable to do their jobs without these and other resources. Since no one can individually negotiate their own contracts, the choice comes down to accepting them or not using the service. In the case of some consumer goods or sales websites, there is not another source for the product. In other words, many users and consumers find that agreeing to terms is really the only option.
What can be in the terms?
Most of what you will find in the terms is common sense; you’ll agree not to resell an online service, or you’ll agree to acknowledge the limitations of a warranty. Yet, many terms of service hold clauses that are harmful to consumers. These terms can restrict your rights or expose you to serious invasions of privacy. Here are a few common terms that can be harmful:
- Terms that permit companies to share your information.
Ever search for something on Google, then see ads for related products on Facebook? This is because your agreement with Google allows them to share information about your searches and activities online. The search giant claims that the purpose of these agreements is to allow you to see more products that fit your wants and needs. However, privacy experts question whether it is worth the invasion.
- Terms that bar you from criticizing the product or service.
This is often stated as, “I agree that I will not criticize this product publicly.” These demands limit consumers’ free speech. They also harm other consumers; after all, if a current customer cannot complain, how can a future customer learn whether the product is of good quality?
While such restrictions may seem surreal to consumers, customers who leave negative reviews have been punished with lawsuits and fines. In 2014, a New York hotel, the Union Street Guest House, attempted to fine wedding parties $500 for each negative review. The hotel’s policy stated that guests agreed to such fines when they signed their contracts with the hotel. While representatives from the hotel claimed that the policy was tongue-in-cheek and was never enforced, guests produced emails from the hotel manager which threatened fines if negative reviews were not removed. Soon after the New York Post reported on these fines, the clause was removed from the site’s terms.
- Terms that restrict you from using the product with another vendor’s products.
Many software vendors have terms in their EULA that prevent their customers from using other products to change the operation of the product sold. For instance, an adware-laden free software product may include terms forbidding the use of software diagnostic tools to discover what actions the program is taking.
This limitation means that customers may be exposing themselves to risks by using a third-party product with this software. However, since analyzing the program is not allowed, customers will never know whether the product is sending information about them or affecting the performance of their computers.
- Terms that make you agree to future changes in the terms.
If a user is forced to agree to these sorts of terms, they may also agree to future changes. This severely restricts a customer’s rights to know what is being done with their information, the products they have purchased and more.
Apple, for instance, states in their terms that your use of the product signifies acceptance of any further changes to the terms of service. Since terms are also subject to change without notice under this agreement, a user might not know about an unfavorable change unless they search manually on a regular basis.
While many changes are not harmful, this sort of language allows companies to include terms that carry that potential. It is completely up to the whim of the company. Any of the harmful terms above can be left out of an agreement at the time of signing, but later added on.
While there is much legal debate about whether all the terms that find their way into EULAs are enforceable, recent cases show that courts have upheld them.
Since it is impossible to read the terms to every product every time they change, wary consumers should find other ways to stay safe. A news alert for a product you use often, for instance, can let you know if other consumers have found problems in the EULA or had trouble from the vendor.
By keeping tabs on possible problems, consumers can protect their data and their rights while still enjoying the products that make their lives easier.
Davin Mann is a personal injury attorney and owner of the Mann Law Firm. He represents clients throughout Georgia.