Terms of disservice

By Ezra Butler on August 10th, 2012

A little over a year ago, a group of modern day European freedom fighters set out to create a service which made it unnecessary for the masses to actually read the Terms of Service on popular web services. Their solution was the “Terms of Service; Didn’t Read” (ToS:DR) website. A superfluous mission perhaps, because, as everyone knows, no one actually has ever read any Terms of Service document in its entirety.

As a so-called digital native, I remember gingerly installing software during my misspent youth and agreeing to any button that said “I agree”. Frankly, the user has no other choice. If one disagrees with with the terms, one cannot use the site. But, and crucially, in the age of the Internet, as opposed to that of locally installed software, the Terms of Service are subject to change at any time – and without the user necessarily being notified.

The trio currently maintaining the service does an admirable job of identifying a real problem (namely: Terms of Service are generally long and unreadable), but in accordance with their professed Weltanschauung, their solution is flawed. Certain features guarantee a lack of cooperation from the companies being criticised. Indeed, the misguided nature of the site is likely to ensure it remains in the domain of the open source and anonymous web fanatic. That’s a shame.

Activists can be constitutionally averse to logic. Twitter, the first service listed on the ToS:DR, receives a “mediocre” rating for a user’s “right” to leave the service. When clicking on the expand tab, the visitor learns that upon closing one’s account, Twitter waits a month before actually deleting the information associated with that user. For these revolutionaries, this is unacceptable abuse of data storage on Twitter’s behalf.

An objective observer might notice two use cases in which Twitter’s policy is actually quite helpful: the first is when the user feels regret for deleting his or her account and wishes to reinstate it. The second is in the case of Mat Honan, the hacked WIRED journalist. If one’s account is hacked or hijacked, it is helpful to know that the deletion is not necessarily permanent and reversible.

In the case of Skype, I am completely confused. The social reformers fume that it is impossible to close a Skype account, awarding a “red alert” icon. But to all intents and purposes, a deserted Skype account has zero effect on one’s life. A user is never forced to log in or to accept messages. And no one else can open an account with the same name and purport to be you. It seems to be a good security practice, as opposed to a case of unspeakable user abuse.

To hacktivists, the use of pseudonyms is an unalienable right. Forcing people to use real names and take responsibility for their actions is ethically wrong for the modern-day pirate. There are (fringe) cases for anonymity and pseudonymity on the Internet, but it is the prerogative of each free web service to allow or disallow those cases.

ToS;DR is powered by crowd-sourcing opinions and with information inputted by volunteers, somewhat similar to Wikipedia. Yet, in the mission statement, the founders say they wish to create a “transparent and peer-reviewed process”. They seem, in practice, to miss the point of “peer review”.

Whose peers are reviewing doing the reviewing? Are these “peers” actually involved in running companies and making decisions about user rights and privacy concerns on a daily basis, or are these “peers” like-minded anonymous reactionary hacktivists who wish to live an antinomian existence, fearful of any iota of perceived governmental “interference”?

Ironically, the same people who desire no copyrights or patents are the same ones to have a problem when services allow third parties to reuse publicly shared information. Terms of Service agreements have a long way to go. But trusting agenda-rich extremists divorced from reality to come up with a fair solution is just plain dumb.