The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently launched a new web site called TOSBack which tracks changes to the terms of service and privacy policies of several popular websites. Among the tracked sites are Facebook, EBay, World of Warcraft, and various other social networking sites and internet service providers. Visitors can see a change log for each of the 58 tracked policies that details which portions have been added or deleted over time, not unlike the “compare documents” function found in Microsoft Word.
The creation of the site was presumably prompted by a recent surge in public concern over what rights are being given away through TOS agreements. EFF Activism and Technology manager Tim Jones sums it up well in an EFF press release, saying: “Terms of service form the foundation of your relationship with social networking sites, online businesses, and other Internet communities, but most people become aware of these terms only when there’s a problem”. More than just assembling the policies into one place, TOSBack draws attention to the fact that they are constantly changing (often to the disadvantage of users). For an example, check out this recent IP Osgoode post about Facebook’s recent failed attempt to sneak one by its user base.
While TOSBack is almost undoubtedly a good thing to have around, it raises an interesting question: Does anyone actually read these policies? Perhaps more importantly, should they be expected to? Written in plain language or not, these are essentially legal documents that sign away users’ rights. It seems unreasonable, for instance, to expect the average teenager signing up for Facebook to fully understand the license under which they’re posting all of their photos and videos.
It’s fair to say that most large social networking sites operate on information harvesting and targeted advertising; they find out what their users like and sell that valuable information to advertisers. It’s in the interests of the Facebooks, Myspaces and Googles of the world to collect as much user information as possible, a goal which often comes in conflict with their users who really just want their data to be shared with their friends. Given this conflict of interests, it’s worrying that many users are being governed by TOS policies that they have neither read nor could fully appreciate even if they wanted to. It’s especially concerning with pseudo-private sites like Facebook and Twitter where users intuitively feel like the information they share is limited to their circle of friends.
Ultimately these TOS agreements are just the latest form of fine print and in a perfect world they would be treated as such. Luckily for us, initiatives like TOSBack are a step in the right direction in that they raise public awareness and help keep the media companies in check. By calling out web sites on their invasive and restrictive policies it helps keep them honest and encourages a transparent exchange where users know exactly what they’re getting into when they sign up.