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What's a user agreement got to do with it?

It used to be that when social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter changed their user agreements, users would cry out against the changes. When Facebook drastically changed their agreement in 2009, entire groups revolted. Some threatened to quit Facebook and surely others did, and dozens of articles from major news sources reported the creation of Facebook groups that expressed disgust with the changes. (Awfully meta, no?) But what about now? Many users blindly accept these agreements and then quietly—even if begrudgingly—accept the changes apps and sites make, regardless of whether the changes are made without fanfare or with much public attention. It seems that the most media attention comes when people—these end users—suffer the ramifications of these agreements.

Wired recently published an article called "Whistleblowers Beware: Apps Like Whisper and Secret Will Rat You Out." Here, they quote Whisper investor Roelof Botha as saying that one of the goals of Whisper is "enabling grassroots whistleblowing." As the article explains, though, apps like Whisper and its contemporary, Secret, have fine print that protect their right to provide users' personal information under a variety of circumstances. More importantly, this fine print leaves the apps with fields and oceans of wiggle room. According to their user agreements, they can provide personal information to law enforcement or in response to subpoenas, or they could provide it at their discretion (what does that even mean?!). Whistleblowers, beware indeed: these secret-sharing apps probably aren't the best place to raise awareness. Instead, consider whistleblower.org or one of the plethora of .govs available for information.∗∗ While this fine print can be frustrating to some users, it's certainly not uncommon among apps—no more uncommon than users who skip over the small print altogether.

This small print can and often does go beyond reserving the right to provide users' personal information (to law enforcement and advertisers alike). Many user agreements also reserve the right to remove the media that users have purchased. This is because—as the small print explains—users buy a license to the media rather than the media itself. This is the difference between buying a license to an eBook versus buying a physical, print copy of the book; providers, unlike bookshop owners, reserve the right to remove the media from your device. The American Library Association explains:

The usual e-book license with a publisher or distributor often constrains or altogether prohibits libraries from archiving and preserving content, making accommodations for people with disabilities, ensuring patron privacy, receiving donations of e-books, or selling e-books that libraries do not wish to retain.

Basically, this means that, rather than increasing the access to and availability of these books, publishers can restrict legal use of the media and even "disappear" the original files. Can you imagine a bookshop owner from yesteryear coming into your home and snatching that book off your shelf?

Yeah, we didn't think so.

How do we protect ourselves?

It's common for user agreement legalese to protect the best interest of the apps while leaving users on their own, especially when it comes to user disclosure. So, how do we navigate through the novels of text?

One website, Terms of Service; Didn't Read (ToS;DR), breaks down user agreements to bullet points with icons indicating the benefit or detriment to the user. Some of the sites and apps it covers include Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Instagram. It even covers some businesses like Comcast and AT&T. You can check it out at tosdr.org. But beware, though, even ToS;DR has a disclaimer (which is, after all, a type of user agreement) at the bottom of their site:

Nothing here should be considered legal advice. We express our opinion with no guarantee and we do not endorse any service in any way. Please refer to a qualified attorney for legal advice. Reading ToS;DR is in no away a replacement for reading the full terms to which you are bound.

It looks like, for now at least, we're stuck reading those full terms—or blindly accepting them and their potential consequences.

In on the joke:

While user agreements are serious business, some companies are drawing attention to the issue by playing games. Check out these gems.

Apples iOS7 spoof:
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/20/apple-ios7-spoof-terms-and-conditions_n_3960016.html

Tumblr is in on the joke too:
http://www.businessinsider.com/tumblrs-new-terms-of-service-is-inspiring-and-funny-2014-1

Altebierbude, an online German car community, calculates how long you took to agree to their user agreement:
http://imgur.com/QuCdzQ8

∗∗And for our disclaimer: We don't recommend or endorse these sites or the use therein. We just think they might have more information on the topic of whistleblowing than we do.

Sources:

Terms and Conditions May Apply (The documentary)

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