Study confirms what you already knew: Terms of Service are confusing

Study confirms what you already knew: Terms of Service are confusing


You know that page with a check box you check without reading on the way to signing up for various online services? The one with the hundreds (or thousands) of words of legalese? Yeah, there is one on this site, too. It's okay. It's because the Terms of Service are boring, lengthy, and probably meaningless. Right?

Well, not necessarily. A new study from Georgia Tech of the "top 30 social and fan creation sites" (including sites from Facebook to Daily Motion) backs that up. Well, first things first: yes, Terms of Service agreements usually are difficult to read. Of the 30 sites surveyed, an average reading level of college sophomore was required for comprehension of them. That means around 60 percent of working age adults in the US (25 - 64) do not understand what they are agreeing to. "It is likely that users may not know what rights they are granting," the study says.

Are these documents meaningless? Like so many answers in the legal world, it really depends on how that law applies to you. What freedoms do you value in the content you create or host online?

Georgia Tech examined the freedoms we are giving up when agreeing to these documents. Most of that involves giving away whatever content is added to the service ("royalty-free use"), but also includes duplicating said content elsewhere ("non-exclusive use"). In plain terms, of course, those translate to "you will not get paid for the content you add here" and "you can also publish what you put here anywhere else you want."

A small fraction of the sites studied even granted the site advertising rights on user content.

Study co-author Casey Fiesler says that clear metrics do not exist to say which of the studied sites have the most or least restrictive TOS agreements, but he points to LinkedIn as an especially extreme example. "Among the more well-known sites that we analyzed, LinkedIn takes the most rights in your work - including the right to commercialize, and the license is irrevocable," she says.

A handful of more specific stats are in the chart below. For more detailed information, check out the full study.

Georgia Tech Study
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