With the lengths of terms-of-service agreements reaching Shakespearean proportions, it's no wonder that internet users are clicking "I Agree" without actually reading what they agree to. A website launched this summer called Terms of Service; Didn't Read is coming up with new ways to inform consumers and fix what it calls "the biggest lie on the web." Bob talks to Michiel de Jong, one of the site's "hacktivist" co-founders.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. It’s no big secret that consumers, when signing up for a service online, probably aren’t reading everything they’re supposedly agreeing to. And who can blame them? Earlier this year The Daily Mail reported that PayPal’s Terms of Service are longer than Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and iTunes’ agreement beats “Macbeth.” This bothers Michiel de Jong, a self-described “hacktivist” and co-founder of the website, ToS;DR, short for Terms of Service; Didn’t Read. To illustrate just how willing people are to click on “I Agree” Michiel recalls one prank from two years ago when the UK retailer Gamestation got its users to sign away more than they bargained for.
MICHIEL DE JONG: As a joke, to prove that nobody actually was reading their Terms of Service, they put a clause in there, somewhere in the middle, saying, you sell your soul to them when you sign up for their service.
They put this live on their website, and they obviously – people who were signing up, they didn’t read it. And there were thousands of people who sold their soul to GameStation.
BOB GARFIELD: God knows, I have never read the terms that I’ve agreed to when I click that button that says “I have read and agree to these terms.” You call that –
MICHIEL DE JONG: Yeah –
BOB GARFIELD: - “the biggest lie on the Web.”
MICHIEL DE JONG: Yeah, yeah. Somebody else came up with that, and we borrowed it. But I think it is the biggest lie on the Web because we all do it, and it’s never true. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Now, what you have done is create a shortcut for people like me who sign onto things and just kind of cross our fingers and hope we haven’t sold our soul. How does it work?
MICHIEL DE JONG: [LAUGHS] What our website does is it has a browser extension. When you install it, when you’re signing up for a website, you see a rating from Class A, which is very good, to Class E, which is very bad. Just like restaurant reviews, we tried to see which ones are the worst ones and which ones are actually taking the effort to make good and fair terms of service.
BOB GARFIELD: And who’s the “we?” Now, you don’t have a hired staff. It’s a community, right?
MICHIEL DE JONG: So there’s the three of us who started this and who are curating the discussion into the data points on the website. But it’s an open forum, so anybody can join. There’s about 400 or 500 people now on the mailing list, and you can just ask questions, like, here is this paragraph, I think that it’s bad or I think this service has that, and I think that’s good. All the mailing list threads then turn into this knowledge base, which then the browser extension bases its information on. So the three of us run the basis for the website, but the real discussion and the rating takes place in like a community of about 500 people on the mailing list.
BOB GARFIELD: What do they consider the most onerous clauses of the terms of service that they want to call users’ attention to?
MICHIEL DE JONG: A lot of services get a license on your data as soon as you upload it. For instance, whenever you publish something on Facebook, they get a copyright license on your photos and on the things you write. In New York, there was somebody who took a photo of the airplane landing on the Hudson River and tweeted that, and to tweet it they used the tool TwitPic. TwitPic then got the right to show that photo to the media. So the copyright license is one important issue. And tracking is also important, where websites track your click behavior and make a profile about you, about which advertisements to show you, and also this profile can often be sold to their companies who then combine it with profiles from other websites. Those are the two main points, I think.
BOB GARFIELD: And then there’s a third issue, and that is that some of these contracts prohibit the user from ever suing. Is that common?
MICHIEL DE JONG: I’ve seen it at least two or three times now, and I have never imagined that that could even be legal. And, apparently, in the EU it’s probably not legal, but I heard that in the US it is. To be it sounds very strange that you sign a contract where one of the parties says I promise not to sue you. That just sounds – like a very imbalanced thing to put in any contract.
BOB GARFIELD: Do I understand that you’re not necessarily trying to dissuade people from downloading any given app or service. It’s more by way of informed choice.
MICHIEL DE JONG: Yeah, yeah. A lot of countries have like an organic label or, for instance, Fair Trade Coffee or sometimes washing machines have like an Eco label. That way we can make a moral informed choice. And you might still buy the cheaper ones but at least as a consumer you have a better picture of what you’re buying into and what you’re getting.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, so I got one more question for you then. When I download your browser extension, what do I have to agree to?
MICHIEL DE JONG: These browser extensions, they’re not services. They’re just free software. So you don’t have to agree [LAUGHS] to anything.
BOB GARFIELD: And my soul, intact?
MICHIEL DE JONG: Your soul intact, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Michiel, thank you very much.
MICHIEL DE JONG: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Michaiel de Jong, along with Hugo Roy and Jan-Christoph Borchardt are the team of hackers behind tosdr.org.