File Under: Web Services

No Time to Read the Terms of Service? ‘ToS;DR’ Does the Hard Work for You

For most of us, Terms of Service (ToS) are just a speed bump on the way to signing up for internet services. Terms of Service agreements are often monumentally long and are almost always written in horrible legalese that even lawyers have trouble parsing. So almost no one reads them; we all just click “agree” and move on. It’s either that or don’t participate.

But what do you give up when you agree to a service’s ToS?

That’s what a new project called “ToS;DR” wants to help you understand. The site’s somewhat awkward name is a play on the common TL;DR abbreviation — too long; didn’t read — which fits perfectly with most people’s approach to ToS agreements. As the site says, “‘I have read and agree to the Terms’ is the biggest lie on the web. We aim to fix that.”

To do that ToS;DR creates report cards for ToS agreements, highlighting any particularly nasty things you might be agreeing to. For example, the popular Twitter image sharing service Twitpic’s ToS has a provision that allows the company and its partners to use your content without giving you credit. That policy, along with some other egregious terms in Twitpic’s ToS, earn the company a grade “E” an ignominious distinction of being the worst-rated company on ToS;DR right now.

Of course at the moment ToS;DR still hasn’t graded very many companies. GitHub earns a “B”, with some good points alongside a few bad ones, like the provision — common to a great many sites — that “your account can be suspended and your data deleted any time for any reason.” Delicious earns a “D”; DuckDuckGo, popular for its policy of not tracking users, manages an “A”, ToS;DR’s highest rating.

For each site ToS;DR provides the actual text of the ToS as well as an area to quote and discuss the terms, calling out anything that might potentially take away users’ rights.

There’s also a very experimental Chrome browser extension that will display a site’s ToS;DR grade in the address bar. Click that grade and you’ll have access to the same data you’d find on the ToS;DR website. The idea behind the extension comes from TOSSOS, an earlier effort to help users understand just what they give up when they agree to Terms of Service.

Like the nascent Chrome plugin, ToS;DR is a work in progress. The vast majority of popular web services still haven’t been graded, though many do have a partial list of problematic elements.

While it’s unlikely that ToS;DR will suddenly make us all hyper-aware of the dangers of giving up our rights to web services, it may well provide a way to call out some of the worst offenders. And who knows, maybe it will convince a few to mend their ways and show a little more respect for their users.