Routine Dismissive Agreements To Terms Of Service Are A Real Problem (Poll Inside)
Infopolicy – Rick Falkvinge
The habit for companies to write terms of service to a length and complexity nobody can understand, coupled with the subsequent habit of everybody of agreeing to them without reading them, has become a real problem. It undermines the concept of contracts as such, and it enables corporations to undermine citizens’ rights without democratic oversight. Maybe regulation is needed.
People are agreeing to anything with a “yeah, whatever” shrug today. A particular website’s terms of service may well include signing away their entire inheritance and house, and it’s likely nobody would notice. This is a real problem, as our ancestors fought hard to give us the rights we have today – rights that are routinely signed away just to play the latest game.
But it’s more complex than that. By a collective mounting of insurmountable obstacles from the entire corporate world to do anything today, we have become desensitized to the concept of a contract. Normally, this was something you’d read, consider, possibly consult with a lawyer, and then sign. But when faced with several of these a week in your daily personal life, doing so would absorb all your waking time.
So we do what humans do. We take shortcuts and cut corners. “Yeah, sure, whatever.”
In a poll whether people usually read the Terms of Service for a website or software before clicking “I agree”, 76% responded “No”. The rest clicked on “I agree”. Yes, really – this actually happened:
This problem is twofold. The immediate danger is that citizens are giving away all the rights they would normally have under law, establishing a new baseline of no rights at all that will become the law as the next generation grows up seeing it as the norm. The second problem is that corporations see themselves as needing all of these – excuse the French – bullshit contracts just to show you a simple cartoon.
Since when did we need to sign terms in blood just to go about our daily lives? Where did this come from? I’d sum the reason up to three words: lawyers, litigation, and liability.
Our society has degenerated into a cover-your-ass society where nobody is prepared to take the action you ask for, another action than the one you ask for, or no action at all unless you guarantee you’re not going to destroy their life over it. It’s essentially a world paralyzed by fear.
In this world, it makes perfect sense for corporations to spend hundreds of thousands of euros to perfect contracts with their everyday customers. (You didn’t think corporations wanted to spend money writing that crap and harassing customers with it, did you? Heck, they’d much rather spend that money on champagne at an executive retreat than give it to lawyers for making customers unhappy.)
So routine dismissive agreements to contract isn’t just one problem, the one of a slippery slope where people sign away rights. It’s at least two problems, where the second being how money is being siphoned off the economy to write the crap in the first place, caused by fear of litigation.
This may actually be an area where regulation is beneficial for everybody but the lawyers.
By establishing clear legislative lines of where corporations are liable and not (in a way that contracts cannot override it), and establishing clear rights for citizens against corporations – do not dare say consumers, these are citizens’ rights – that are equally inviolable, you can get rid of much of the need for these contracts in the first place. Nobody really wants them.
The danger in doing so would lie in regulatory capture – that is, that the balance between citizens’ rights and corporate liability is struck at a point where those with money would like it to be – and that you’d make it harder for future, unthought-of businesses, pretty much like the copyright monopoly is making life hell for everybody except the obsolete middlemen right now.
But wouldn’t that be better than people unknowingly signing away their firstborn sons because they’ve learned to not read contracts?