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Site Tackles Terms and Conditions Confusion

Database rates sites and helps you understand what you’re signing up for

Social Networks

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Terms of service for popular websites are often long and confusing, and few users read all of them before clicking in agreement.

En español | The recent Facebook hearings have cast a new light on those lengthy and labyrinthine Terms and Conditions agreements that are a standard requirement when signing up to use many websites, apps and social networks. Unbeknownst to most users, Facebook’s terms and conditions granted the social media site such leeway with its users’ information that when data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica infamously mined Facebook user data, it actually remained in compliance with the site’s guidelines. As Facebook has more older users than ever, it's not just the young and naive who are unwittingly signing over the use of their personal information.

A newly revived website aims to do something about Terms and Conditions confusion. At www.tosdr.org, site developers are building a database of terms of service agreements for various websites and will offer user-generated grades rating the clarity and straightforwardness of the agreements. Ease of extrication is a factor, too: Github, with terms that allow full deletion of an account at any point, rates highly. Facebook-owned Instagram, which won’t delete your photos from its server even if you delete your account, gets dinged.

The German founders of the site — an acronym for “Terms of Service; Didn’t Read” — actually began working on it as a side project when they were graduate students in Berlin in 2011, according to Wired.com. The impetus was their collective shock that not only were terms of service hard to understand and too long to read, most of them grant a site the right to change terms entirely without invalidating the user agreement. This means that, even if a user takes the time to read all the terms before clicking yes, those terms can change entirely the very next day, and the agreement remains valid.

Terms of Service; Didn’t Read languished a bit in recent years as its founders moved on to different projects. But in light of recent news, and with newer tools to better disseminate information and consolidate user contributions, the site has found new life. It has begun issuing updated grades to specific sites (Google gets a C, YouTube a D and non-tracking browser DuckDuckGo gets an A; Facebook doesn’t have a grade yet). This month it will debut a brand-new, more user-friendly platform.

The idea, says cofounder Hugo Roy, is to become the Wikipedia of Terms of Service, a trusted source of collective wisdom. He compares it to the rating system used for appliances in the European Union. “You don’t have to know about how electricity works or how a washing machine works,” he recently told Wired.com. “You just have a rating which will tell you this is good, this is bad.”

Studies have shown just how few people actually take the time to read terms of service language. In 2015, researchers at Michigan State University found that only nine of 543 subjects caught dummy language inserted into a terms and conditions agreement that required them to hand over their firstborn child. Last year, a similar experiment by Wi-Fi provider Purple found people happily clicking to agree to terms of service that "required" them to clean portable toilets and give hugs to stray cats and dogs.

Another study "showed that 52 percent of people believe that if a company has a privacy policy, that means they will not share your information," digital rights attorney Kit Walsh told website HowStuffWorks last year. "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."

Work on Terms of Service; Didn't Read continues, and browser extensions that will automatically pop up when you visit a rated site are already available. Other sites that police ever-changing website terms are springing up, too: www.tosback.org, to which tosdr.org contributes, keeps a running database of terms and conditions and privacy policy updates for popular websites.

"If nobody can individually read these terms," Roy told Wired, "then we have to figure out a collective solution."

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