Do You Read the Terms?

Terms of service have been front and center for a few weeks now.

First there was the location tracking fiasco affecting both iOS and Android users. Lawsuits have already been filed against both Apple and Google.

Now today, I found this item warning against migrating Delicious bookmarks to AVOS, who purchased the service from Yahoo last week.

The big question is do you read the terms of use? I suspect generally the answer is not really, maybe skim, but not really read them.

Why not?

Well, they’re written by lawyers for other lawyers really, not for the layperson, and therefore, pretty much every terms of service I’ve attempted to read is mindbogglingly confusing and ambiguous. Frankly, if you read the terms for everything, you’d probably reject more than approve, given the gray areas.

In the case of free software and services, you could argue something-for-nothing, i.e. by getting something free, you’re kind of agreeing to some level of marketing or other uncomfortable use of your data. Facebook falls into this area.

However, for paid services like smartphones, it’s not as clear cut, which says a lot considering how murky the free services can get.

So, are users who have agreed to terms simply Darwinian casualties who should be held to the terms to which they agreed, as lampooned in a recent and timely episode of South Park? Or should companies be held responsible for their confusing legalese?

Again, not likely to be a clear-cut answer.

It would be nice to see simplified terms of service rolled out, similar to what Twitter is doing with its OAuth dialog. Of course that takes effort and likely wouldn’t be legally defensible, so users would still have to agree to the official terms in all their glory.

Not an easy problem to solve, but one that I’m sure will continue to beg to be solved.






  1. For important things, I do. Maybe work related or where there is some exchange of money.

    Free stuff, not so much. If I get bitten by it, it’s my fault for not reading. Should it be simpler? Absolutely. Not everyone speaks lawyer (Floyd is the one exception I know of in our industry) and I would spend more time trying to simply understand it than it is worth.

  2. Who has time to read it all. Having a condition that allows the suppler to boot you off the service isn’t a big deal. You’ve got no real guarantee they’ll still be in business in six months anyhow.

    I’m more cautious if money is involved. But generally it would have to be a LOT of money before it would be worth anyone dragging it to a court. Is Oracle likely to sue if I breach the T&C of by using it for organising the roster for a stall at the school fete ? [I’m not, by the way. It’s just an example.]

    I’m much more cautious about anything that wants to be able to publish through my Twitter account. Currently Google gets that level of trust, but could I trust some start-up that might end up being bought for the price of a coffee, or even just manage to p**s off it’s sys admin one day ?

    Ultimately I’m more worried about what they can physically do, as opposed to any terms and conditions. After all, the people who snuck away with all that PSN subscriber data aren’t going to be bound by any promises about what the data will be used for,

  3. this is nothing the new satellite can track anyone where ever u r they can even watch u while taking shower. Privacy has become major issue with emerging technology

  4. Agreed. The vulnerabilities of the services we use cavalierly are much scarier to me than the terms of some new service. I pretty much assume any free service wants to hose me, but as I pay for a service, my threshold goes up for tolerance.

    FWIW, location tracking on iOS and Android shouldn’t be a surprise. I always assumed they were doing that anyway, on the Mac too for auto timezone adjustment. As expected it, the goal wasn’t as nefarious as it could be, i.e. tracking me, but rather more corporate, building a location database.

    I do find it a bit funny that many people are aghast that Apple or Google know where they are and would want to track them. I suppose that would work for marketing (probably not), but it does assume a high level of self importance.

  5. Sure, I guess I should have clarified terms for internets stuff and such 🙂

    It does feel like Google Translate could take on legalese with great success. Unfortunately, it’s the same endgame, if you mistranslate, you can get sued, if you agree and don’t read, you could get sued, if you hire a lawyer and misinterpret, you could get sued.

  6. Poll – Who are you most concerned about knowing your whereabouts 24 hours a day ?
    (a) Google / Apple / Microsoft
    (b) Police/government
    (c) husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend
    (d) employer

  7. Rarely unless something to do with the financial industry. I do read reading privacy and data protection policies though. There has to be some better way to get people to read these things or at least to be alerted to key points. Perhaps gamification?

  8. Maybe, although that would be met with the same annoyance that causes bypassing the terms entirely. The root of the problem is the conflict between users and companies both wanting control. Messy business that frankly won’t get any better any time soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *