Terms Of Disservice: A Critique Of Terms Of Service Agreements

1228 words - 5 pages

Do you know what you’re giving away when you sign up for websites? Most internet users blindly accept Terms of Service (TOS) agreements when they create accounts. TOS agreements spell out the rules users must obey in order to use a web service. Additionally, important information regarding the rights of users and of the company is included in these TOS agreements. Such agreements are unavoidable by internet users; this unavoidability is precisely why these agreements are potentially dangerous to the rights of internet users. The implementation, language, and length of TOS agreements make them morally unacceptable.
There are very few ways that TOS agreements are implemented. Commonly, users must check a checkbox located at the bottom of an account creation form, which affirms that they accept the TOS. In addition, “Terms of Service” or a similar phrase is often hyperlinked to the actual text. In another implementation, a short sentence explains that by clicking on the button to submit the form, the user agrees to the TOS. Both implementations are highly ineffective due to their passive nature. There is nothing to compel a user to read the actual text. Users just have to check the checkbox and/or submit the form in order to get on with internet activities. Why waste time reading a legal document when one could be doing something else? Indeed, most people just want to get on with what they were doing instead of reading the TOS. Passive implementations of TOS agreements are not urging users to read the text.
The language of TOS agreements may also discourage users from reading them. Unsurprisingly, TOS agreements, as legal documents, are often laden with legalese. In a study that analyzed 30 different TOS agreements, there were many common legal terms: “We saw the following types of licenses: revocable, irrevocable, assignable, limited, nonexclusive, paid, perpetual, royalty-free, sub-licensable, transferable, unrestricted, and worldwide” (Fiesler and Bruckman 4). Would an average internet user understand these different types of licenses to their content? It’s highly unlikely. The legalese may overwhelm the users that were diligent enough to read a TOS agreement. In this case, even understanding the dictionary definitions of the words may not be enough for full comprehension; just as one can read a philosophy text with an average lexicon but fail to see the true meaning, users can read TOS agreements and still be clueless about their actual rights to their content. Furthermore, Fiesler and Bruckman found that “the average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Score (representing a U.S. educational grade level) is a college sophomore reading level of 14.8, ranging from 8.4 to 19.8” (4). While the sample size is only 30 TOS agreements, it’s still an alarming result. TOS agreements have low readability. Legalese and low readability discourage users from reading TOS agreements.
TOS agreements are often lengthy. Although they vary in length, they’re usually at...

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