With the ever evolving and expanding interest in, and uses for, user related data, and the ever growing amount of user generated data, criticism of standard practice around ‘Terms & Conditions’ (T&Cs) as means for gaining ‘informed’ consent from users for accessing and using their data is becoming ever more vocal.
As reported in the findings of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on Responsible use of data, not only academics and activists for privacy or consumer protection but also politicians and many companies are now concerned about the ethical implications of people habitually click-signing T&Cs without reading, let alone understanding, them. As stated in the recommendation of the report:
“We [the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee] are not convinced that users of online services (such as social media platforms) are able to provide informed consent based simply on the provision of terms and conditions documents. We doubt that most people who agree to terms and conditions understand the access rights of third parties to their personal data. The terms and conditions currently favoured by many organisations are lengthy and filled with jargon. The opaque, literary style of such contracts renders them unsuitable for conveying an organisation’s intent for processing personal data to users. These documents are drafted for use in American court rooms, and no reasonable person can be expected to understand a document designed for such a niche use. We commend the Information Commissioner’s Office for investigating ways to simplify the contents of terms and conditions contracts and ask the Government, in its response to this report, to detail how the public at large will be involved in arriving at more robust mechanisms for achieving truly informed consent from users of online services. Clear communication with the public has been achieved in the past, for example in the use of graphic health warnings on cigarette packets. Effective communication with the public can be achieved again.”
There are now various efforts underway, or at least in preparation, by the Information Commissioner’s Office, companies and other organizations to improve the readability of T&Cs, in terms of length and language use. One of these is the citizen-led Plain English Campaign which awards a “seal of approval for the clarity of a document”. Another is the planned development of internationally recognized kitemarks to provide users with confidence that any particular set of terms and conditions meet a “higher standard”. The kitemark development however is still in early stages.
While improvements to T&C legibility and visual marks for communicating data management standards are important development, the general level of apathy that people have by now developed towards the idea of even trying to understand T&Cs is another element that will need to be rectified.
Following in the tradition of public health and ethical causes that are of importance to the general population, it might be worth considering instituting a Terms & Conditions awareness day. A day on which everyone is encouraged to think about the various T&Cs they’ve signed in the previous year(s). Look up the actual text of one or more of those T&Cs and discuss it with friends, family or colleagues. Perhaps companies, organizations or individuals with technical and/or legal expertise could use such a day to engage with people and explain what the T&Cs of various software/apps/websites mean. Organizations like the Information Commissioner’s Office or groups like Open Rights Group, Electronic Frontier Foundation, iRights coalition, Mozilla Foundation, etc. could engage with the media to discuss important elements that people should look out for in T&Cs. Perhaps publish public friendly T&C summaries for some of the most popular apps/sites.
What do you think? Is it time to establish an annual awareness day for ICT Terms & Conditions?
Thought and comments would be greatly appreciated, as would participation in our survey on “conditions for consent to analyze social media data”.