The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Londoners accidentally pay for free Wi-Fi with a firstborn, because no one reads anymore

Whoops. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

A good Wi-Fi network is hard to find, but six Londoners were willing to pay the ultimate price -- based on the Terms and Conditions they agreed to, anyway.

In an experiment sponsored by security firm F-Secure, an open Wi-Fi network was set up in a busy public area. When people connected, they were presented with lengthy terms and conditions.

But to see just how little attention we pay when checking that agreement box, F-Secure included a "Herod clause" -- one that offered up free Wi-Fi in exchange for the company's permanent ownership of the user's firstborn child.

The experiment was intended to highlight the dangers of connecting to unknown Wi-Fi networks, the Guardian reports. While only six people clicked through the Herod clause, another 33 devices connected once the researchers removed all Terms and Conditions. Meanwhile, users left their personal data -- including passwords -- completely vulnerable to the network.

A company would probably have trouble getting you to hand over your pride and joy (even if you were technically contractually obligated), so don't panic. But this hapless agreement to terms is pretty common: A 2011 survey  found that 58 percent of adults would rather read an instruction manual or credit card bill than go through online terms and conditions. Even the phone book was a more palatable read for 12 percent of those surveyed.

And we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that people basically never read the things they agree to online -- because if we did, we'd spend about 76 days a year doing it. In fact, this new study isn't the first of its kind: On April Fool's Day in 2010, a host of U.K. shoppers were tricked into signing away their immortal souls.

But hey, wait, what if you always read the terms and conditions? Consider this: In a 2008 study, the Nielsen Norman Group consulting firm concluded that Internet users probably only actually read about 20 percent of the words they "read." We've convinced ourselves that we're master speed readers, but we're actually just skimming.

People read text online differently than print, studies have found, with eyes flitting about from word to word instead of traveling linearly. That's okay -- the brain isn't naturally suited to one way of reading or the other, so we can probably force ourselves to stay good at both if we try. But when presented with a solid wall of text in the form of a contract that also happens to be on a screen, People use their skimming skills instead of the line-by-line reading that might protect them from legal snares.

But there's a difference between a solid skim and not reading something at all, and surely it takes a special level of inattention to accidentally sacrifice your child or soul. Scientists can't be sure yet whether our shrinking attention spans are the result of our tech-heavy life -- or if the distractions are just giving us an outlet for our naturally flitting focus. But either way, maybe we should start demanding distraction-proof bullet points at the top of all of our contractual agreements.

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