Users turn over their first-born children: Why you should always read terms carefully

Very few people will actually examine terms of service (TOS) agreements carefully, and a recent experiment proved that to ridiculous levels.

The experiment was designed to prove what it called “The Biggest Lie on the Internet,” aka the box you check saying that you’ve read and agreed to the terms and conditions outlined in extremely long and tedious text. The study’s 543 participants were told they were being invited to join NameDrop, a new social network, and were given the opportunity to “quick join” without reading the site’s terms and conditions or to be taken to the TOS.

Almost three-quarters (73%) of users didn’t even pretend they wanted to read the accompanying privacy policy and terms of service. They opted for the join right away and accept the terms (whatever they may be) option.

Those that did read the documents didn’t get too far. Eighty percent of those participants spent less than a minute on the 7,977-word privacy policy, and 86% spent less than a minute on the 4,316-word terms of service agreements. The median time for browsing that latter document was 14.04 seconds.

Why does it matter? A careful reading of these documents would’ve revealed clauses no sane person would agree to, including:

  • forfeiture of the user’s first-born child to NameDrop (should said child not exist, they had until 2050 to produce one)
  • NameDrop promised to share their personal data with third parties, including the National Security Agency or users’ employers, and
  • the social network refused to take any responsibility for the consequences such disclosures would have.

Takeaways

There are at least two lessons to be gleaned from this experiment. First, and this should come as no surprise, users don’t often think carefully about the policies and procedures they’re agreeing to. For IT pros, that means that handing a users a policy handbook and saying “Read this over and sign it” won’t actually lead to compliance with your rules.

Another, equally important lesson: Don’t fall victim to the business equivalent of clicking “I agree,” the standard Service Level Agreement (SLA) for products and services.

These terms will always favor the vendor, and can be changed — provided you read carefully and nix any provisions you can’t live with before signing on.