It’s a routine part of using the internet: whenever you sign up for an account, service, make a payment, or even visit a website, you are asked to “click to accept” a list of terms and conditions that are normally far too long to read. So rote is the procedure that few people would feel bad about admitting that they rarely read these long lists of small text. After all, who has the time? One estimate says that it would take 25 days per year for the average American to read all their online contracts.
Indeed, study after study has shown that internet users regularly hand over their precious rights unknowingly, simply to get what they want. In an experiment carried out by Jonathan Obar of York University in Toronto and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch of the University of Connecticut (both communications professors), students were asked to sign up for a fictional social network called NameDrop. The results were alarming: “98% missed NameDrop TOS ‘gotcha clauses’ about data sharing with the NSA and employers, and about providing a first-born child as payment for SNS access.”
One could point out that there has always been fine print and that this is not a function of the digital era, but rather, an example of the complexity of being a human. But others argue that the very design of these web pages—rather than T&Cs that appear in print—make it more likely that people will obediently click. In a study of 80,000 internet users, respondents were 26% more likely to “click to agree” if they were told their consent was required and not given another option. “In other words”, as The Guardian put it, “when design invites people to consider their options, at least some do. If the design nudges them instead to follow a habit that years of click-to-agree has instilled, then they’ll do that instead.”
As T&Cs become a more and more ubiquitous part of our online lives, there must be a better way of presenting them so that consumers and tech users know what they are signing up for. One way of improving consumer knowledge—which asking them the undue burden of reading contracts as a part time job—is to use websites like “Terms of Service; Didn’t Read.” The website provides “ratings” for various website’s terms, so you can see the general picture of what you are consenting to. They also flag worrisome clauses that you might want to know about and pay special attention to. As the service says on its website: “Terms of service are often too long to read, but it’s important to understand what’s in them. Your rights online depend on them. We hope that our ratings can help you get informed about your rights.”
Another way to modernise the way we agree with large companies like Facebook, Google, or Twitter is to reach industry-wide agreements that impose a code of ethics on what internet companies can provide. As The Guardian put it, “You don’t have a contract with a doctor, but you can expect her to adhere to the Hippocratic oath and a host of other obligations to you because of her licence.” Because this would essentially take power away from these big companies to impose the conditions they want, it’s unlikely to happen unless there is a major lawsuit that upends the industry and forces change.
Other design fixes matter too, such as Facebook’s practice of asking users “Who can see this?” as they’re posting content, rather than once when they sign up. This makes it more likely that the user will pay attention to the privacy-related question at hand, rather than having it buried in small print. While it’s clear there is no easy fix, internet users must for now be more diligent about what they are agreeing to. After all, negligence or lax attitude will generally only hurt