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After Instagram controversy, a watchdog site tracks shifting Terms of Service

After Instagram controversy, a watchdog site tracks shifting Terms of Service


Docracy tracks changes across thousands of Terms of Service agreements, with surprising results

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Instagram terms of service stock 1020
Instagram terms of service stock 1020

In January, it got a lot harder to sue Skype. If you had checked its Terms of Service last week, you would have found a new sweeping class action waiver, a huge headache for anyone thinking of taking the service to court. The biggest issue? No one noticed. A few weeks later, Skype reversed the changes just as silently, and the entire incident was effectively erased.

While we argued over Instagram, hundreds of other sites changed their terms

This is what usually happens. While the internet was slugging it out over Instagram's ToS changes (and getting them wrong), hundreds of other sites changed their terms without a word. Companies aren't legally obligated to notify users, and the terms are usually so intricate that it's easy to slip in an extra section without raising suspicions. Unless you're reloading the page every day and comparing versions, it's nearly impossible to keep track of it all.

To keep companies honest, a new site is doing just that. Docracy launched its Terms of Service Tracker a few weeks ago, and it's already tracking terms for nearly a thousand sites, using Github-style version control to show exactly what's changing and when it changed. Want to see what Skype's ToS looked like two weeks ago? It's right here. Want to compare the earlier version with what's on the site right now? Docracy has a page for that too, complete with strike-throughs and new sections highlighted in green.


The site works by crawling each page daily, similar to the bot requests that power Google Search. Whenever the site notices a change, it caches a new version. It's easy enough to compare the two and highlight the differences. Even that simple process might be illegal on some sites, depending on how you strictly you read their anti-scraping guidelines, but for now Docracy has managed to steer clear of legal action.

They're not front-page scandals, but the changes show how quickly company promises can evolve

After only two weeks, the site has picked up a lot of changes, and some of them have been pretty weird. For instance, every few days the IRS Privacy policy changes how it formats dates, from "2012-08-23" to "23 Aug 2012" and back again, over and over. No one knows why. Docracy's working theory is that two bureaucrats with different formatting principles are taking turns managing the page. We reached out to the IRS for comment, but the service was unable to clarify.

Then, there are the straightforward privacy issues. On January 23rd, an industrial equipment site called Northern Tool quietly reserved the right to share your name, address, and anything you've bought from them. On the 28th, Amazon forbid users from using their AWS data pipelines on computers they didn't own. They’re not front-page scandals, but tracking the changes for even a few weeks shows how quickly company promises can evolve. The vast majority of Terms-of-Service changes are like this — small, incremental, not worth noticing — but together they chip away at user privacy in a way that’s hard to deny.

And occasionally, a company will tip its hand. In December, Facebook quietly removed the right to opt out of search results; a month later, the company unveiled Graph Search. Docracy hasn't turned up anything quite that juicy yet, but it's only a matter of time.