Editorial: Simplifying terms and conditions


As you browse around your favorite fashion website, you open Facebook in another tab of your browser to check out photos from the weekend. When the page loads, an advertisement appears for the website you just visited. You wonder, skeptically, how Facebook gathered the information about your browsing tendencies. You wonder what else Facebook knows about you.

According to an article from Mic, Google stores user data and sells it to advertisers to gain insight on how to best position and sell their products to consumers. Mic also reported that Google records the voices of users each time he or she uses the “OK, Google” help and search function. The purpose is to improve the performance of the feature, specifically voice recognition of the individual user. Data is stored for anyone who uses the “OK, Google” service.

Many people are unsettled when they learn they’ve allowed Google to store so much personal information, especially when they don’t recall agreeing to it. But how much reason do we have to complain? How many people can honestly press the “Yes, I accept” button at the end of the lengthy terms and agreements, heavy with legalese and contractual statements? Most will skim the text and jump to acceptance, annoyed by complex words and eager to begin using their new favorite music service or shopping site.

Companies do give users the opportunity to know what rights they are signing away. Apple actually forces its customers to scroll down the pop-up of its terms before allowing them to accept. However, should the average person be expected to truly understand what these statements say? They are often written in a way that only individuals familiar with legal terms can make sense of what is defined.

Huffington Post reported that a U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy study shows that 14 percent of the U.S. population can’t read. In addition, 21 percent of U.S. adults read below a fifth grade level, while 19 percent of high school graduates are illiterate.

Beyond those who are too lazy to read the terms and conditions, how many people would actually be capable of understanding what is being agreed upon? We believe firms have a responsibility to ensure that an average user can read and process the meaning of the terms and conditions.

According to an article by The Conversation, researchers from University of Nottingham used a tool called Literatin to assess the difficulty of Google’s terms and conditions. The service uses length of sentences, use of polysyllabic words and overall word count to asses the readability of the terms in question. The terms were then given a Simple Measure of Gobbledygook score, and Google’s terms were found to have a score of 15.48, meaning that 43 percent of the adult U.S. population would not understand it. Google’s terms ranked harder for understandability than the epic poem Beowulf by Old English poet John Green.

If it would benefit the consumer, why do firms choose to display only the complex version of their terms? Is there fear about whether users would not like what they see, and avoid using the company’s services as a result? If Google were more transparent with users in stating how much personal information it stores and sells to third parties, how many people would still feel comfortable using it?

Huffington Post reported that Facebook’s terms and conditions state the website has the right to sell a user’s name, profile picture, content and information when the user endorses — or “likes” — something. Facebook even has the right to study messages and posts that were typed but not sent in order to understand self-censorship. These terms are buried, and it’s questionable whether people would still create Facebook profiles and use them in everyday life to communicate with family, friends, coworkers and even strangers, if they had read the terms and conditions.

We could all afford to be a little more cautious when providing personal information online, but the impetus is not just on the user. Companies, especially those that dominate the internet, shouldn’t be afraid to be more transparent. Unless there’s something to be afraid of.

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