“I have read and agree to the Terms is the biggest lie” on the web. We aim to fix that.
I’ve blogged before about the difficulty in writing social media terms and conditions and it isn’t hard to see just how complicated these agreements have become. It’s entirely true that most people don’t read the majority (vast majority) of terms and conditions they accept. But this project isn’t going to fix that.
The project would ultimately like to present visual summaries of key provisions in the terms for major platforms. Here, for example, is their visual summary for Twitter’s terms:
Right off the bat I think anyone looking at this summary would be confused. The first item is a thumbs down on “Right to leave the service.” Wait, so I can’t leave Twitter? That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Fortunately, I can click the Expand button below to get a bit more detail on the point.
So there’s a bit more information in the Expanded view. And it turns out common sense prevails–I do, in fact, have the right to leave Twitter but Twitter maintains some rights to my content until it’s eventually deleted. So it turns out that one line summary is wrong.
I can also click on the Discussion link to see how the project arrived at this conclusion. This is where the project continues its problems. The analysis is pretty thin on the Discussion and even though it’s pointed out that content’s lifespan is an issue with social media (using platforms that propagate content for quick communications) it isn’t addressed within this term summary. It turns out the summary item has nothing to do with leaving the service, it has to do with how long your content remains after you leave the service. And considering Twitter is a public network that is being archived by several third parties, I’m not sure why it’s a thumbs down to have your content deleted 30 days later.
Oh, and the right word is “deactivate,” not “deactive.” Yes, I’m being picky–but it’s the first term of the first platform being analyzed. Let’s at least proof read that far.
Part of the problem may be the people providing the analysis, which is no fault of the project itself but does show some of the fundamental problems in trying to summarize a lengthy legal document. It’s common legal knowledge that if you put five lawyers in a room and ask them a question you’ll get seven different answers (at least). With very few exceptions we have no idea who the project’s analysts may be or how they are qualified let alone how the project decides between conflicting views.
The project itself seems to have questionable content as well. Take, for example, Twitter’s summary on copyright (here’s the expanded view):
This summary has a lot of problems. First, as any lawyer can tell you, it is very different to say that there is an unlimited copyright license and a license that is very broad. In fact, Twitter’s license is not unlimited. It is not, for example, perpetual (so it can be revoked). Twitter also does not obtain the right to make derivative works based on your content, so they cannot take your tweets and adapt them into a novel or screenplay. Those are limits.
So if someone was just reading the initial summary and saw “Unlimited copyright license” they would be getting false information. If they read the expanded view it gets a bit more accurate, but also has the conclusion that the license “goes beyond the requirements to run the service.” Really? I’d like to ask that question of five lawyers in a room.
But these initial problems could, in theory, be addressed as the project matures and gets more (and more qualified) people involved. But I think there’s another, even more significant problem in the theory behind the project.
Here’s the thing–most lawyers don’t want to say something in 100 words if 10 will suffice. The problem is that it can be incredibly difficult to summarize in 10 words what you need 100 to say. This is not a problem unique to contracts–open your glove box and take out your car operators guide if you doubt that.
Terms and conditions, like most contracts, can certainly be designed and written to be user-friendly. That often takes more time and effort than a standard contract so it may be an exercise in balancing your resources. Some do it well (Twitter’s terms are very user friendly and peppered with a few tips and translations as well, Tumblr’s terms are easy to read as well); others, not so much. But that’s where the effort needs to be made–the terms themselves need to be better, more readable, easily understood. We’re starting to see that trend develop–the new EULA for Windows 8 are said to be very easy to read and we continue to see platforms develop more conversational terms and conditions. That’s the way we solve the problem with understanding terms and conditions.
Once you start relying on other people to provide one-line summaries based on shorter explanations based on email discussions amongst potentially unqualified people you’re not simplifying social platform terms, you’re playing Legal Telephone.