The Fine Print

In some ways online user agreements and policies may be an improvement – at least there we can use ctrl-f to seek out suspicious terms like “collect” (all your data), “third party” (the companies buying all your data) or “arbitration” (replacing your right to sue with the right to complain to an arbiter hired by the company). And, if we’re hopeful that someone may replicate PC Pitstop’s experiment, “financial consideration” and “prize.”

Yesterday, Priceonomics’s Alex Mayyasi took on end user license agreements—those things we click on when we download programs like Spotify and iTunes—and says that although the majority of people out there don’t actually take the time to read them, those who are interested in what companies are asking us to digitally sign can use ctrl-f to figure it out (rather than skim when its in print).

He pointed to PC Pitstop’s 2005 stunt in which the company buried a line in the user agreement promising $1,000 to a limited number of users who emailed them. It took five months until someone finally did.

The problem is that we just don’t have the time to read all the agreements that come our way:

A study from Carnegie Mellon calculated that the average Internet user would need to spend 76 days a year to read and understand the privacy policies and license agreements of the websites and software they use. That is nearly 4 months of 8 hour workdays. If every company buried treasure in their privacy policies and user agreements, then finding them would be the equivalent of a part-time job.

We can push this beyond using ctrl-f, of course. In 2010, new regulations required credit card companies to send a one-page agreement summary to customers when they opened up a new card in addition to the full 12- or 15-page agreement terms included with the card. Essentially, including a “Cliff Notes” version may get more people to understand what they’re signing.

Photo: hobvias sudoneighm



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