The Real Reason Terms of Service Are So Confusing

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The Real Reason Website and App Terms of Service Are So Confusing

By Dave Roos

If you never read the terms of service or privacy policies on websites or apps, you're not alone.

Popular websites and apps like Facebook, Amazon and Instagram aren't coming after your first born, but they do intentionally draft privacy policies, terms of service and end user license agreements (EULAs) that they know (or hope) no one will ever read.

“There's a clear advantage to them to being unreadable,” says Kit Walsh, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group. “It would take you two months to read all of the agreements that you click through in a year. The PayPal terms of service is longer than ‘Hamlet' and lot less interesting to read.”

The real function of these dense, jargon-filled policies and agreements — which most of us universally ignore — isn't for companies to inform users of our rights, but to establish legal grounds for collecting and sharing our information.

“A study showed that 52 percent of people believe that if a company has a privacy policy, that means they will not share your information,” says Walsh, citing a 2014 Pew survey.”That's dangerously untrue. The typical privacy policy doesn't say we will respect your privacy and not share your information. They're written to give the company as much leeway as possible.”

When you click “agree” on most social networking sites, that gives the company the right to mine and collect data not only from your clicks and “likes,” but from your private messages to other users, Walsh says. Your home automation system collects and shares data with the company about when you're home and when you're not. Medical monitoring systems gather and save extremely personal and sensitive information. But when was the last time you read the fine print on any of these systems?

“We trust our devices with all of the intimate details of our private lives, and the privacy policies are written to let the companies that run those devices do essentially whatever they want and commercialize that private data,” says Walsh. “In many cases, the utility offered by an app is just the bait to attract users, and the company's real business is collecting as much data as possible and shipping it out.”

“In many cases, the utility offered by an app is just the bait to attract users, and the company's real business is collecting as much data as possible and shipping it out.”

A British government task force just released a report about how unreadable terms and conditions impacts children online. In the UK, 56 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds have an Instagram account, but when a group of children were asked to read the app's 5,000-word terms of service agreement, none of them could decipher the “postgraduate”-level legalese. So the task force asked a lawyer to translate the document into plain English.

Read full article and learn more about Terms of Service here.

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Disclaimer:  This article is provided for informational purposes only. It’s not legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship is created. Neither the author nor FTC Guardian, Inc. is endorsed by the Federal Trade Commission.

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