Despite innumerable complaints about the obscene word counts and excessive legal jargon in terms of service agreements (ToS), for most companies clarifying the documentation isn’t exactly a high priority. The status quo benefits the service providers — since it’s implicitly understood that customers aren’t comparison shopping based on ToS there’s an incentive for owners to draft things broadly, grabbing rights to user data that could be considered excessive. A new project called ToS;DR (Terms of Service; Didn’t Read) aims to change that by surfacing the objectionable stuff buried away in ToS agreements and giving users the tools to form an opinion before they click "I Agree."
The site centers around traffic-light-colored badges that are assigned to different aspects of an agreement. For example, Twitter’s "transparency on law enforcement requests" earn it a green thumbs-up, while Skype’s "no right to leave the service" earns that part of its ToS a red x. Each service is then graded with a class from A (best) to E (worst), giving users a single data point that describes how its terms stack up.
"What we do here is not legal advice. We're only expressing opinions."
ToS;DR uses crowdsourcing both to flag the sketchy-looking parts of agreements, as well as to work out their legal implications. "That’s what the project is about," says project lead Hugo Roy. "Creating debate about them, inviting people to discuss, have legal opinions and counter opinions, etc." One company frequently criticized for "rights grabbing" has been photo hosting service TwitPic, and ToS;DR gives it an E — "the terms of service raise very serious concerns." I ask if anyone is concerned about a legal response from the companies being rated. "What we do here is not legal advice. We’re only expressing opinions," Roy explains. "But I’d say to TwitPic or Facebook, sure, go ahead and sue me," adding that it’s probably not in their best interest to "have trials about how bad their ToS are for users." Rather than turn things into an us-versus-them proposition, though, the team hopes ToS;DR can start a dialog that leads to more favorable terms for users.
The site is still unfinished, and Roy is a little uncomfortable with all of the media attention a mere two and a half months into its development. "The initial plan [for release] was September 1st, with a pre-alpha launch at the Campus Party in Berlin on August 22nd," he says, explaining why many of the ratings are still unfinished. The project has gotten a lot of valuable help since taking off, but it’s still a very big problem to tackle and the team is actively looking looking for users to contribute. "iTunes’s ToS are longer than MacBeth," says Roy. "I don’t want to read bad ToS for the rest of my days."