Does anyone read the Terms of Service for anything they buy or sign up for? And I don’t mean “glance at it to acknowledge its existence;” I mean sit down with a cup of coffee (maybe a carafe, depending on how long the document is) and go over everything the manufacturer or company wants you to know about. We don’t blame you if you don’t, but you should.
You might have heard about the website Terms of Service; Didn’t Read recently. The concept of an “approachable Terms of Service” is making the rounds thanks to all the privacy problems big tech has faced lately, and a recent profile from Wired turned the spotlight on this third-party site yet again (it launched in 2012). It’s great to see that ToS;DR is still online. However, it’s time for the industry to borrow a page from ToS;DR’s approach and make their documents as easy to read as this site, because ToS;DR shouldn’t have to do it all for them — nor should you trust it to.
A tl;dr for ToS;DR
ToS;DR takes those absurdly long Terms of Service documents and attempts to summarize their most salient points so you can quickly see what you’re getting into without having to spend an afternoon deciphering legalese. For example, consider its listing for GitHub:
- + You don’t grant any copyright licence to github
- – Changes can happen any time, sometimes without notice
- – You shall defend and indemnify GitHub
- + Your personal information is used for limited purposes
- – Your account can be suspended and your data deleted any time for any reason
That’s it. You can click through GitHub’s listing on ToS;DR to see quoted examples the site used to create each of these little bullet points, but here’s my sticking point with ToS;DR. While the site is helpful for understanding how software, sites, and services run their businesses, and how that might impact you, trying to chase down the latest Terms of Service document seems to be a struggle for ToS;DR.
Tracking ToS updates is tough work
Let’s look at the GitHub listing on ToS;DR again — which doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2012. When you click through to find more details about ToS;DR’s bullet points, the quotes provided — that probably came from some version of GitHub’s ToS — are not found in its most recent document.
For example, try searching for ToS;DR’s quoted phrase “We claim no intellectual property rights” from the site’s first bullet point about how GitHub treats the content you upload to it. This quote no longer exists in GitHub’s ToS.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that GitHub has changed how it treats your content; it’s just updated the language a bit. Here’s a quick comparison of ToS;DR’s quoted text versus GitHub’s newest text:
“We claim no intellectual property rights over the material you provide to the Service. Your profile and materials uploaded remain yours. However, by setting […] your repositories to be viewed publicly, you agree to allow others to view and fork your repositories.”
“You retain ownership of and responsibility for Content you create or own (“Your Content”). If you’re posting anything you did not create yourself or do not own the rights to, you agree that you are responsible for any Content you post; that you will only submit Content that you have the right to post; and that you will fully comply with any third party licenses relating to Content you post.” — Section D, “User-Generated Content,” subsection three, “Ownership of Content, Right to Post, and Licence Grants.”
(GitHub’s bit about repositories is in a separate section about licenses granted to other users.)
You should read the Terms of Service yourself
While ToS;DR captures the gist of what GitHub is talking about, the summary site seems to fall short on the details. And then there are the discrepancies. Take, for example, this quoted statement from GitHub that ToS;DR flags as bad: “You agree to provide your full legal name when you register to the service. It does not prevent you from using a pseudonym.”
I searched through all three documents ToS;DR linked in its summary — GitHub’s Terms of Service, Privacy Statement, and Security documentation — and found no requirement for a full legal name. In fact, GitHub’s ToS now says the exact opposite:
“You must provide a valid email address in order to complete the signup process. Any other information requested, such as your real name, is optional, unless you are accepting these terms on behalf of a legal entity (in which case we need more information about the legal entity) or if you opt for a paid account, in which case additional information will be necessary for billing purposes.”
Is this a big deal? Not really, but sort of. It’s a good reminder that summaries can be helpful to decipher an unwieldy ToS, but you should really scan through the document yourself to make sure you’re getting the most accurate, updated information about a company’s policies straight from the source.
More importantly, you (and your friends) should pester the companies you care about to rewrite their crappy, sleep-inducing Terms of Service documents in everyday language. GitHub has taken this exact approach by providing helpful, easy-to-understand summaries of each major section’s points. For example, here’s its quick summary of its seven-point “User-Generated Content” section:
“Short version: You own content you create, but you allow us certain rights to it, so that we can display and share the content you post. You still have control over your content, and responsibility for it, and the rights you grant us are limited to those we need to provide the service. We have the right to remove content or close accounts if we need to.”
Facebook — everyone’s favourite punching bag for privacy (and rightfully so) — has adopted the same treatment following the big blow-up over Cambridge Analytica last month. As the company wrote in a blog post in early April:
“It’s important to show people in black and white how our products work — it’s one of the ways people can make informed decisions about their privacy. So we’re proposing updates to our terms of service that include our commitments to everyone using Facebook. We explain the services we offer in language that’s easier to read. We’re also updating our data policy to better spell out what data we collect and how we use it in Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and other products.”
The difference between Facebook’s two Terms of Service documents is jarring, to say the least. One, you might actually want to read; the other, you might want to get a pillow ready before you give it a crack.
There’s absolutely no reason why every company shouldn’t follow ToS;DR’s approach: easily stated (and shorter) Terms of Service that give you all the information you need to know without boring you to death. We commend ToS;DR for trying, but you shouldn’t have to rely on a third-party tool to keep you updated about your favourite companies’ terms and conditions. It’s time for the sources of these service documents to pick up the slack.