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    How to navigate terms of service?
    Posted: 2013-08-08 15:52:14

    Reading the terms of service, and understanding privacy policies of a website can be a daunting challenge.  While most people listen to the warning ‘always read the fine print’ when it comes to paper based contracts, online it can be too much work. A recent study estimated that it would take about 244 hours a year to read the terms of service for every website the average person visits in a year, so the real question is how can you reasonably protect yourself while online.


    Websites you don’t have accounts with:

    These make up the majority of the websites you visit. Newspaper sites, recipe sites, blogs and pretty much any site where you don’t make an account. While you probably don’t read the terms of service, that doesn't mean they don’t exist.

    What to do:
    Don’t sweat it. Unless the website really goes out of it’s way to make you agree to it’s terms, it’s likely not going to be applicable to casual users of the site. ‘Browsewrap’ agreements are common on sites like this: a small link somewhere on the bottom of the page takes you to the terms of agreement, and those terms usually say ‘By using this website, you agree to all of these terms’.  There have been cases for more than a decade indicating that unless you give a lot of notice, browsewrap agreements are difficult to enforce.

    Websites where you share information about yourself:


    Websites like Facebook and Twitter, or Instagram and Blogger are sites where you have a bit more of a serious relationship.  You create an account, and give the website copies of either your personal information or your creative work.  Either way, it’s worth understanding what the terms of service and privacy policies are.

    What to do:
    Use tools like ‘Terms of Service, didn’t read’ to get a better understanding of what other people think of  the important parts of the contract.
    Skim the contract for the parts that are important to you, look for answers to questions like: “How can I delete my account, and what happens to the information after I do” “Do they share the information with third parties?” and “What happens to the copyright of any work you submit to them?”

    Websites where you spend money:


    Websites where you buy or sell things, and websites where you have a monthly subscription are both places where it makes a lot of sense to double check the fine print.  While it might not be worth it to do a lot of research for a website where you are purchasing a five dollar album, anything involving money you would be uncomfortable losing, or monthly payments, should be double checked.  Even common websites like Paypal can have clauses in it’s contract that can surprise you.

    What to do:
    Let your level of involvement with the site determine your action: At the very least check the contract for how it deals with issues like Cancellation, Arbitration and Waivers.  If it’s a small matter, a quick review of the contract might be enough, but if you are thinking about making a major purchase online, or even running a small business using the website: read the ToS cover to cover, and consider seeking legal advice.

    What about contracts that change all the time?


    Staying on top of contracts can be difficult. There is a trend for companies to include clauses that say "We reserve the right to change this contract at any time, and not notify you".  While this process has been successfully challenged in the courts multiple times,  and has even been described as being a poison pill for contracts, it’s still a good idea to stay up to date with changes to the terms of agreements of sites you use frequently. A recent example would be Instagram’s proposed change to their terms of service that would have resulted in them claiming a perpetual worldwide copyright over all their users photos. The site gave notice to their users, and it seemed likely that users would have had to either delete their accounts, or accept the new terms. In take it or leave it situations like that, Docracy has an excellent tool for following changes in terms of service, it even outlines the changes on a line by line basis.

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