Simplifying the terms of use for the rest of us

A few years ago I had the opportunity to write the Terms of Use for a startup I was with. We were a small group on a shoestring budget (as one is) and decided to write the Terms of Use ourselves and send it to a lawyer for a quick inspection. The sense was that the ToS was something we needed from a legal perspective but that the only people who would read it are tech bloggers and press, and that even then, they’d be read at most, one time. This ended up being the case.

The truth is that users agree to terms they know nothing about just to skip that install screen. It is only later when they learn that they were unwilling participants in social experiments, or that they cannot use the name everyone knows them by, or when they see ads that prove the advertiser has been tracking them around the web and in and out of online stores, that consumers realize that they agreed to all that in the Terms of Use.

As an aside, a recent poll in Britain showed that “84% of people don’t read the Terms and Conditions before they sign a contract.” Contracts for buying cars, taking out a mortgage and other loans and insurance. Things that can have dire consequences. Yet “only 16% of you read the small print before you potentially sign you hair, car or underwear away. Of these, only 17% understand the jargon used.”

Which leads me back to the Terms of Use on web sites and applications: they are hard to read. They’re long, mostly in legalese (though some web sites have tried to make them more readable) and their intent is not to be user-friendly but rather to cover the company’s legal behind. And face it, it is the rare user who will not sign up for a product or website because of something they read in the Terms of Use.

Which is why I really admire the work done by the folks over at “Terms of Service; Didn’t Read.” They realized that while most Terms of Use are long, legal and tedious, it is still important to understand what is in them. They have isolated the important issues such as copyright, ownership, tracking, data usage, and ability to delete and otherwise control your data. After isolating those issues they rank the company’s stance on them with simple to follow green thumbs up for good, orange thumbs down for bad and red X for the worst it can be. That’s what I meant by Terms of Use for the rest of us. After all that they assign a grade to the site, A for great and E for terrible.

Writing my blog post draft on Google Docs, rated C by ToS;dr

Writing my blog post draft on Google Docs, rated C by ToS;dr

Here’s what I really like: ToS;dr doesn’t expect us to go over to their database to check out company rankings. No, that would be too hard. Instead, they’ve created a browser plug-in that shows you just the letter grade for every site they’ve rated. Easy!

Finally, this is hard work and looks like it takes ToS;dr a long time to rate a site. Plus, even when they rate a site, the Terms of Use can and do change constantly. It’s a tough job. Wouldn’t it be great if companies self-rated their terms instead of hiding behind legalese? If they self-ranked their terms, acknowledging their “dirtier” practices instead of just touting their pro-user ones? Will this happen as more people install the plug-ins?

Do companies even have an incentive to make their Terms of Use friendlier to the user? Probably not. Earlier today, Facebook released a statement about how it will go about user research in the future. The NY Times’s summary was spot on: “In essence, Facebook’s message is the same as it has always been: Trust us, we promise to do better.”

PS Thanks again to ProductHunt for introducing me to ToS;dr.



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