Goodbye, firstborn children: This study shows how wordy terms of service hurt users

Even surrendering their first born won't stop people from signing up for a new social network.

It’s no secret that few people pay much attention to reading and understanding all the terms of service and privacy policies you come across online. Now a new study shows just how ridiculous and anti-consumer the lengthy agreements really are.

The new paper, titled “The Biggest Lie on the Internet,” created a fake social networking site with suggestive and outrageous clauses in its Terms of Service (ToS). But surprise! Nearly everyone joined anyway, as first reported by Ars Technica.

The study takes its title from a common refrain about the phrase “I have read and agree to these terms.”

How it worked

The study took 543 undergraduate students “from a large communication class at a university in the eastern United States.” The students were told that their university was working with NameDrop—the fake social network—and the students would be participating in a “pre-launch evaluation” of the website.

As with any other service you sign up for online, you just saw the sign-up page and were asked to read the policies. Though there was a ‘quick-join’ option that allowed you to skip the privacy policy without reading it.

Unbeknownst to the students, the terms of service contained two questionable clauses. The first said NameDrop may be required to share your data with the government including the National Security Agency (NSA).

That clause is concerning when you really think about it, but it’s close enough to what you’d see in a real ToS. Twitter’s terms, for example, says “we also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to (i) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request.”

NameDrop’s second crazy clause should’ve stopped most users in their tracks—or at least clued them in that the service wasn’t real. The second clause said all users agree to give their “first-born child” to NameDrop. If the user didn’t have children yet, their first baby would still have to go to NameDrop until 2050.

In the end, the study says 74 percent of the participants skipped reading the privacy policy. Those who did read the privacy policy didn’t spend long than 73 seconds even though it should’ve taken around 30 minutes to read the whole thing.

The average reading time of the ToS, meanwhile, was 51 seconds when it should’ve been closer to 16 minutes.

Perhaps the most surprising finding, however, is that those who actually did read the crazy clauses signed up for the social network anyway.

The impact on you at home: Even if you were a conscientious user who wanted to read all the various terms and privacy policies, you probably couldn’t do it. An older study from 2012 found that it would take you about a month every year to read all the privacy policies for every website the average person visits in a year. It’s simply impossible.

But that doesn’t mean all is lost. A browser add-on for Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari called “Terms of Service; Didn’t read” (ToS:DR) aims to at least help you get the gist of what you’re agreeing to. You can download it directly from ToS;DR’s site.

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Ian Paul

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