How To Quickly Read Terms Of Service

You’re inundated with new contracts, terms of service, privacy policies and disclaimers for every new service you use, but reading them all is next to impossible for a normal human being. To help solve this problem, we’ve looked at the language of most Terms of Service agreements to come up with the main words and sections everyone should pay attention to.

Title photo remixed from liz west.

A recent paper from Carnegie Mellon suggests it would take the average internet user about 76 days to read all their privacy policies. The researchers found that of the top 75 websites, the average length of a privacy policy is 2514 words. Of course, for every privacy policy, a Terms of Service, end user agreement or other contract also exists. So, how can we feasibly parse all this information without spending eight hours a day on it?

For obvious reasons, the lawyer I spoke with doesn’t recommend skimming Terms of Service. If you’re using a service or software for a business you should read the entire agreement very carefully. But you and I both know you’re not going to read all 23 pages of the iTunes App Store Agreement, so while we respect their position, we’re taking a more realistic approach and we’ll show you what you can skim past and what you need to pay attention to. I spoke with eDiscovery attorney Mark Lyon to help parse the most important information out of a typical Terms of Service so you can read it quickly and get on with your day.

Skim for These Words and Ideas in Any Agreement

We’ll detail a few specifics for when you’re signing up for a free or paid service in the next two sections, but before we get to that, we need to look at a few of the common ideas you find in every agreement you sign. Mark suggests keeping an eye out for a few important terms.

  1. Will my information be shared with third parties (aka affiliated)?
  2. Can I opt out?
  3. Arbitration, where I might give up my rights to sue in court if necessary.
  4. Waivers or releases where I might be giving the company the ability to use my content or be giving up a claim I have against the company.
  5. Sections written in ALL CAPS.

Any section in all caps is worth reading and if you typically don’t read the Terms of Service, it’s worth at least keeping an eye on those sections. For the others on his list, it’s as simple as keeping an eye out for all the key words listed above. Before clicking “I agree,”, do a quick search (or just CTRL+F) for:

  • Third parties and affiliates.
  • Opt-out.
  • Arbitration (You will find a whole section dedicated to arbitration usually).
  • Waive or waiver.

A quick search for these terms will draw your attention to only the parts of the agreement that directly affect you. It won’t save you from signing a bad agreement every time, but it will help prevent you from agreeing to a contract you can’t get out of it. You’re looking for signs that your information might be sold to third parties, that you can opt-out of an agreement if you like, and that you can sue if something goes wrong. Let’s take a look at a few of the same words and ideas you need to look out for in both free and paid services.

If You’re Signing Up for a Free Service

A free service like Facebook or Google comes with a whole different set of rules to follow. Most of the big services use a plain-English approach, but they can still be incredibly time-intensive to read. Mark suggests keeping your eye out for the answers to three questions when signing up for a free service:

  1. What right I have to content?
  2. What uses the provider can make of my content?
  3. How can and can’t I use the service?

Subsequently, the above words are what you want to pay attention to. For instance, in Google’s Terms of Service, you will find a section titled “Your Content in our Services” that answers the above two questions. You can also search for “content” to find all instances where the Terms will tell you who own the content you produce with the service. The third question is answered rather bluntly in Google’s case under the “Using our Services” header: “don’t misuse our Services”. A couple of examples Google offers include the fact you can’t use any Google assets for your own purposes and you can’t access Google services other than through the methods they provide.

If You’re Buying Something

Pretty much everything you buy has some type of service agreement with it. If you’re purchasing software or media, it’s pretty simple, but Mark recommends keeping your eye on a few things:

If I’m signing up for entertainment (particularly games and media), I want to be certain that I’m only getting what I expect. Some developers try to slip in additional programs or adware. Usually, when they do this, they try and protect themselves by mentioning the additional (and potentially unwanted) content in the agreement.

Two words to watch out for in a software licence are: “rights” and “other content”. You will usually find a small section in a software licence titled “Disclaimer of other content” or something similar. This is where you will usually find information about any DRM or additional installations not covered by the licence.

Monthly services are very different. It’s important to pay close attention to the cancellation requirements on the agreements you sign with subscription services. Mark offers these two examples where the wording sounds a little fishy:

Dollar Shave Club does a good job of explaining how to stop the membership, but requires a vague “reasonable amount of time” to cancel. You might be on the hook for another month. makes you call to cancel and doesn’t offer pro-rated refunds. I try to avoid subscriptions that try and make it hard to unsubscribe.

You will usually find unsubscribe information by searching for either “unsubscribe” or “cancel”. It’s a good idea to look for this information in any subscription-style service, like a mobile phone contract. Photo by The Consumerist.

It’s not possible to fully understand a legal contract by just glancing at it, but if you know what matters to you and what to look for, you can avoid signing up for a service you’re not comfortable with. Have you ever found out about something terrible in a Terms of Service after you already agreed to it?

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