New rules for the terms of service

Sign the dotted line

Fact #1: Nobody reads the terms of service. Well, almost nobody, anyways.

Fact #2: You should read them, since clicking “I have read and agreed to the Terms of Service” is legally binding, and you probably missed something important.

Fact #3: Even if you do read the terms of service because it’s “legally binding”, it’s in such complicated legalese that one page takes a good fifteen minutes to comprehend. And if you have to do that for every piece of software, well, that would be a full-time job.

You all know it. Every app’s interface is so nice and cuddly and user friendly except their terms of service. Those are long, hard, boring, and most of all, dangerous.

Yes, I said dangerous. Quite a few terms of services claim a lot of weird things, including Google’s worldwide licence to your content on any of their services (including Google Docs and YouTube, to name a few).

Yes, that line is kind of obscure. And yes, there’s actually a disclaimer above that line stating that “you retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content”, but the fact is, Google can use it. And they’re not the only ones with such oddball terms.

Fact #4: Legal documents are usually boring and always long, and we know that terms of services do have a purpose—without them, companies will be sued out of existence. That’s why Google’s terms have this line: “some of our Services are available on mobile devices. Do not use such Services in a way that distracts you and prevents you from obeying traffic or safety laws.” Without it, well, just imagine the legal chaos.

Our problem, of course, is with those little landmines companies lay in their terms. The question is, is there a way better way to clearly communicate their terms to us consumers?

Well, I have several solutions.

Summarise it. I’m quite sure that there would be a few more people reading the terms if they were only a page long.

Make it readable. Six point font, to be clear, isn’t. Neither is legalese. How about explaining everything in layman’s terms and blowing up the font a little?

While those two are sort of helpful, here’s one I think will really be good.

Make a video detailing the terms of service. I mean, these days, it’s all about videos. Creating a new product? Use a video to explain it. A big announcement? Another video.

In fact, the only thing that tech companies haven’t turned into videos, really, are their terms of service. I mean, if companies treated their products like their terms, they would just create a PDF that’s 200 pages long detailing the product specs. And no one, no one, would read it, let alone use the product.

But a video? It would be like shining a floodlight on the terms of service. And people would actually understand what they’re signing up for. Which might be good. Or bad.

Of course, there’s a little problem with the solutions. I mean, no matter how much more “readable” companies make their terms, they’re still unlikely to advertise their landmines. But then again, maybe it’s time to let go of those. Maybe it’s time companies treated us on the consumer end with more honesty. But that’s a topic for another day.

So while it’d be nice if companies actually improve their terms of service, they probably won’t unless pressured. But what other things do you think could improve terms of services?

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