Predictable outcomes

Picking up a bit on two recent posts: Last week, I wrote about "Digital assistants", with the idea that services might emerge that could help manage how users (and readers) share information on the web. Later that day Klint Finley, writing on TechCrunch, posted "Putting an end to the biggest lie on the internet".

There probably are a number of competing options for "the biggest lie on the web", but in this case Finley targets the "terms of service" (TOS) agreements that online services require users to accept before authorizing an account. As Finley notes:

"[M]any TOS are so ridden with legalese that you practically need to be a lawyer to understand them… Users have no choice but either agree to the terms offered by a web app or simply not use the service at all."

The post goes on to introduce TOS;DR, short for "Terms of Service; Didn't Read", a site that describes itself as "a user rights initiative to rate and label website terms & privacy policies, from very good (Class A) to very bad (Class E)." To date, TOS;DR has evaluated agreements offered by Twitter, Twitpic, Facebook, Steam, Delicious, Github, Soundcloud, Google and others. Most have not yet been assigned a class.

So far, the worst rating has been given to only one service (Twitpic), which was dinged for several of its practices (language taken from TOS;DR):

  • "Reduction of legal period for cause of action"
  • "Your content is for Twitpic and their partners"
  • "Deleted images are not really deleted"
  • "Jurisdiction in Delaware"
  • "You indemnify Twitpic from any claim related to your content"
  • "Twitpic takes credit for your content"

Clearly, terms are much more accessible (and sobering) when they are explained this way.

Toward the end of the post, Finley adds that "activist users have had more success in pressuring companies like Dropbox and Facebook to change their TOS than getting users to defect to privacy centric systems like Diaspora." That brings me back to "The right balance", posted yesterday.

In the epilogue to Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky wrote:

"The dramatic improvement in our social tools … makes our control over those tools much more like steering a kayak. We are being pushed rapidly down a route largely determined by the technological environment. We have a small degree of control over the spread of these tools, but that control does not extend to our being able to reverse, stop or even radically alter the direction we're moving in. Our principle challenge is not to decide where we want to go but rather to stay upright as we go there."

"Staying upright" might start with understanding the rules of the road, as contained in these TOS agreements. If we're not willing to dig enough to know what we're agreeing to, we're going to be consistently surprised by some predictable outcomes.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.