Why and how to check ToS and policies

A part of this article was first published in the newsletter Towards Sustainability #4, October 2020.

This started out as an article about the new trend of companies publishing environmental, sustainability, or ethical policies on their websites. Whether they have them or not and what’s in them can provide some valuable insights into the values of an organisation. 

We’ll come back to those kinds of policies in another article soon, because along the way I took a bit of a detour into another kind of document that no website should be without (including legally in many countries), the ‘privacy policy’. This is also an ethical policy of sorts and, as dull as it might be, should be essential reading before entering any kind of personal data on any site. 

It might seem unimportant, but your data is valuable, maybe not so much in isolation, but when it is grouped together with millions of others as a dataset then it can be used in many ways. On some levels to companies like Google and Facebook you (and the information that you freely give up) are as much the product as you are the customer. 

Normally I try to write with a coherent flow, reaching the important message or conclusion at the end but this time I’m going to come out with it already and explain the importance afterwards, just in case you don’t make it to the end. 

TLDR; Privacy policies and Terms of Use are important. Do read them! 

If you need a justification for that statement then you don’t have to look any further than the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This was an extreme case of  profiling and targeted political advertising, that was used to influence important global votes, like the 2016 US Election and the Brexit Referendum, and arguably subverted democracy.

Every time you go online you are being exposed to this kind of profiling and targeting in a smaller and usually less sinister way. Data privacy is something that pops into the news every so often and for a week or month everyone cares about it, but it’s soon forgotten again and that really shouldn’t be the case. The fact is that your personal data is a commodity, it might seem as if big social media sites and search engines are offering you a ‘free’ service, but the reality is that you are often paying them without realising it. 

It’s not restricted to your personal information either, if you actually take a look at the privacy policies and terms of use of some big social networks you might be surprised by who actually retains ownership and rights over the writing, photos and other content that you produce. 

A useful tool – Terms of Service; Didn’t Read

I’ve recently discovered a useful site called Terms of Service; Didn’t Read, you can find it here: tosdr.org. In their words, they are: “a user rights initiative to rate and label website terms & privacy policies, from very good Class A to very bad Class E.”

Some of the terms of service that they have rated are pretty interesting, some of them probably should be criminal and some are just a bit of a surprise. It’s no real shock that Facebook and Instagram get an E, but it might be more surprising that National Geographic does too.

If you are signing up to a big site, then there is a good chance that you can find it already listed on ToSDR and see, neatly and clearly summarised, just what it is that you are actually agreeing to when you lie and click the checkbox that says you have read the ToS.

It probably won’t change your mind about signing up to something, but it just might, and even if it doesn’t at least you will be aware of what info and rights you are giving away.

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