SciTech

Does it matter if you don’t read the (click) license agreement?

You are subject to all sorts of binding online terms of service agreements as you click your way around the Web. Chances are you never read these agreements – one study says you’d need to take a month off work each year to have enough time to read all the privacy policies you encounter. And even if you did try to wade through the legalese, you could hardly be expected to understand it.

What exactly are you agreeing to when you browse around on the Internet? A “South Park” episode from a few years back posited that when you click “I agree” as you download iTunes, you are granting Apple the right to sew you into a human centipede.

End-user license agreements, known as EULAs, typically draw attention when some ridiculous clause comes to light. You agree to let one company spy on everything you do in your car. You grant another company the right to show up unannounced at your home, at any hour, to “inspect” and “audit” your premises.

But these are outliers. Most EULAs involve more garden-variety power plays. Helpfully, Pinterest – in an effort to make its user agreement intelligible to non-lawyer humans – has placed translated summaries labeled “More simply put” next to its thickets of legal text. So let’s take a look at what sorts of rights Pinterest asks us to cede.

Some seem reasonable: “(D)on’t post porn or spam or be a jerk to other Pinners.” Some we might be less thrilled about: “Copies of content shared with others may remain even after you delete the content from your account.”

To me, the most troubling clauses involve Pinterest’s liability, or lack thereof. Not coincidentally, these are the ones that get most simplified in the site’s folksy translations. For instance, there’s a series of terms that, as best I can tell, attempts to limit Pinterest’s aggregate liability to $100 per dispute; to prohibit all class-action suits and jury trials; and to allow Pinterest to determine legal jurisdiction. This gets boiled down to “We’re not liable for various things. If you think we are, let’s try to work it out like adults.”

Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at the Santa Clara University Law School, in California, has drafted hundreds of online terms of service agreements. He says that he – “like most sane people” – doesn’t read everything he agrees to. But Goldman feels there’s no easy fix to this absurd situation.

The main purpose of all these agreements is for companies to shield themselves from legal action. They don’t want to accept the default law that’s been established by the government, so instead they claim additional safeguards against lawsuits.

Don’t get down on yourself if you have no idea what you have and haven’t agreed to online. People have been ignoring fine print since long before there was a World Wide Web. “This is part of modernity, and it’s been around for 150 years,” argues Omri Ben-Shahar, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and connoisseur of user agreements.

But Goldman notes that consumers do get an indirect benefit from all these agreements. By protecting themselves from legal exposure, companies can better predict their risks, which in turn shaves their costs. That helps them provide their services more cheaply. Or in many cases – Facebook, Google, Twitter – for free.

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