Apple prohibits using its iTunes service for the manufacture of nuclear or biological weapons. Amazon will permit its cloud computing service to be deployed to help combat a zombie apocalypse that could “result in the fall of organised civilisation”.

Those clauses are in jest, buried deep in the tech giants’ online terms of service, but they highlight how most people have no idea what is signed away when they click “agree” to binding terms of service contracts. Agreeing often means allowing personal data to be resold or waiving the right to sue or join a class-action lawsuit.

The potential for abuse has spurred calls for reforms to the tech sector. Courts and legislators are also zeroing in on reforms to terms of service agreements that would help reset the balance of power between consumers and tech companies.

The root problem is that consumers are simply outgunned. Because corporations and their lawyers know most consumers don’t have the time or wherewithal to study their new terms, which can stretch to 20,000 words — about the length of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — they stuff them with opaque provisions and lengthy legalistic explanations meant to confuse or obfuscate.

Understanding a typical company’s terms, according to one study, requires 14 years of education. A 2012 Carnegie Mellon study found the average person would have to devote 76 work days just to read over tech companies’ policies. That number would probably be much higher today.

There are signs of waning tolerance to all of this. Early this month a Massachusetts court found that Uber failed to make its terms clear because it had hidden them in a hyperlink on the third page for new customer registrations, with no click-to-agree requirement.

Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, has proposed legislation aimed at improving transparency around privacy policies that govern how consumer data is used. In 2016, Congress made it illegal to include clauses that prohibit consumers from posting negative reviews. But the burden remains far too great for average consumers.

Legislators should consider instituting rules that require greater transparency around changes to companies’ terms of service and clearer means by which customers agree to them. The key is informed consent, allowing for the possibility that an eagle-eyed consumer can catch something unconscionable. /New York, January 23

New York Times


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