Experts warn users to read website terms carefully before clicking ‘Accept’

08 Gen Experts warn users to read website terms carefully before clicking ‘Accept’

The Canadian Press, January 7, 2009
It’s become a routine of signing up for email, online dating services or social networking websites: casually clicking “Accept” below several pages of dense legalese that none of us ever read. But these so-called terms-of-service agreements, which outline everything from who owns your Facebook photos to which court you’d need to fly to if you were sued, are binding contracts and shouldn’t be entered into lightly, say online privacy experts. “The public doesn’t have the time or the knowledge to work through these agreements,” says Michael Geist, who teaches Internet law at the University of Ottawa. “But yet they unquestionably set the framework for the rights that a user has if they use a website.” The issue was highlighted last month when Missouri mother Lori Drew was convicted after she created a phoney MySpace profile in a hoax that apparently drove a 13-year-old girl to suicide. The 49-year-old was essentially found guilty of conspiring to violate MySpace’s terms-of-service agreement, which forbids fake names and harassment, even though her lawyer argued that no one actually reads them. While it was an extraordinary case, it served as a reminder that running afoul of the sometimes-burdensome language inside such agreements could land users in trouble. And you might be surprised at what’s in them. Users typically retain ownership of the pictures, videos and text they post, but they often grant the sites a broad licence to use the content in pretty much any way they want. Facebook, MySpace and Google all require legal disputes – whether against users or the companies – to be fought in courts in California.
On Facebook and MySpace – as Drew found out at trial – lying about your identity is a no-no. Anyone caught sending spam or other unwanted email on MySpace could be charged US$50 per message. Google users must be old enough to form a legal contract – 18 years old or higher in many places. YouTube bans, among other things, “ninja assassin training” videos. Adulterers need not sign up for dating sites and eHarmony, where the fine print requires users to be single. Some websites and software downloads even include language that allows personal information to be sold or spyware to be installed on users’ computers. And in most cases, websites can change their agreements without notice, leaving it up to users to check back for updates. While it would take a legal case to ultimately settle the issue, Geist says most Canadian provinces have e-commerce legislation that make online contracts binding. “It removes the doubt about what does it mean when you click, ‘I agree.’ It means you agree and it’s enforceable,” he says. “By and large, as long as it’s consistent with reasonable expectations and standard industry policy, the person creating the contract can expect it will be enforced.” While the courts would likely be reserved for extreme cases, most sites insist they are active at enforcing their terms-of-service agreements, suspending or deleting accounts of users that break the rules. “I think users should take the terms of use seriously whenever they join a site, and respect those terms in how they use the site,” says Simon Axten, a privacy officer for California-based Facebook. “I would guess that one of the dangers would probably be not having a clear enough understanding of what’s acceptable on the site, and what’s not, which we feel is really important in maintaining this safe, secure environment.” But it might be unrealistic to expect users to read every agreement they come across. A study published last fall by researchers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University looked at the amount of time it would take Internet users to read online privacy policies, which are often the same thing as terms-of-service agreements. The study found it would take more than 200 hours per year – or about 30 minutes each day – for average Internet users to read the agreements for every website they visit, which in turn would cost the United States about $650 billion worth of lost time. “A lot of these agreements are not really designed for readability, most of them are just trying to make it all legal and are taking a CYA (cover your ass) approach,” says one of the study’s authors, Lorrie Cranor. “So if you go back later and say, ‘How could you have done this to me, I didn’t know?’, the company can say, ‘Well, we said it in black and white, didn’t you read it?”‘ Cranor says users might make different choices about the websites they visit or shop at if they were fully informed about the sites’ policies. She says websites should do a better job at presenting agreements in shorter, plainer language, but she also says governments have a responsibility to ensure minimum standards. “The government can say there’s certain things that companies just aren’t allowed to do, and even if you tell me up front, you still can’t do it because it’s just unfair,” she says.