Know what you’re signing before clicking ‘I accept’

August 12, 2011

Growing up the daughter and granddaughter of lawyers, I learned one thing early and I learned it well: Any contract I ever consider signing must be read by a lawyer before I put ink to paper.

On the Internet, though, small “I accept” buttons have replaced the dotted line — and somewhere along the way, I stopped listening to my family’s advice.

I’m not alone. Accepting terms and conditions online with nary a glance has become such a cultural touchstone, the comedy show “South Park” started its seventh season this May with a character signing his body away to science when he agrees to an iTunes update.

“No one reads them; no one knows why they’re there,” Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington, said in a phone interview. He was being only partially facetious.

Kerr, who teaches and practices computer crime law, said that technology companies likely write the terms of service as broad as possible to cover any and all possibilities.


(Harry Campbell for The Washington Post)

Part of the dilemma is that technology companies often create products not knowing how they will be used in the future. Twitter started out as a toy for tech geeks to fool around on, or so founder Biz Stone thought. Instead, it became a rallying point in revolutions.

As of last week, BlackBerry found itself in the middle of a developing criminal case when London rioters were said to be using the BlackBerry Messenger service to organize protests. The private messaging service kept plans a secret from police. BlackBerry said it would comply with any police investigations, raising concerns it would turn over private communiques to the authorities.

BlackBerry’s terms of service agreement spells out that very possibility in dense legalese: “You hereby authorize RIM to cooperate with: (i) law enforcement authorities in the investigation of suspected criminal violations; (ii) third parties in investigating acts in violation of this Agreement; and (iii) system administrators at Internet service providers, networks or computing facilities in order to enforce this Agreement. Such cooperation may include RIM disclosing Your or Your Authorized Users’ username, IP address, or other personal information.”

It’s down on page 7 of the 18-page legal contract. Click “I accept” and you’re bound by it.

Such convoluted legal contracts are ubiquitous now in the technology world. And part of what people agree to when they agree to them is that those conditions can and do change.

There’s some protection in numbers. High-profile companies are often kept in line by the diligence of users who keep track of any errant terms of service. For example, Apple faced heat for its terms of service when researchers discovered the iPhone saved people’s location data. The company claimed it was a manufacturing glitch and offered a free update to fix it. Facebook frequently runs into complaints over its constant updates to its terms and conditions, occasionally retreating after consumer complaints but often sticking to the changes despite pressure from users.

We’re handing over more and more information to companies without knowing how it will be used, now or in the future.

And yet, Kerr says, there is little an individual can do about the “legal gobbledygook.”

You can wade through the legalese and try to start a movement to pressure the company to change the parts you find objectionable.

Or, as with so much about the Web, you can accept the trade-off — possible infringements on your privacy for access to the app or service.

For the moment, I accept defeat.

Sorry, Dad.

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