Why Read the Fine Print?

Every time you sign up on a new service or purchase something you come across a checkbox that requires you to agree to the terms of use, terms of sale, terms of service, or terms and conditions of the site or purchase before you can finish the process.

Yet when it comes to your privacy, ownership of your content, and the safety protections a site provides to users, online services are not created equal.

Most people never take the time to read the fine print, but knowing what you are agreeing to when you put a check in the acknowledgment box is actually pretty important. These terms outline the services’ rights and responsibilities, as well as your rights and responsibilities when using the site.

You may be surprised at how various services – even within the same category of service do, or do not, respect you and your rights to your own content.

The rights a service claims to your information

The rights a site claims may go far beyond what you feel comfortable with. For example, a popular social networking site’s terms of use include the following rights to your information as of Aug 2011:

Grant of License to Your Content

A. You warrant and represent that you own the rights to or are otherwise authorized to post, display, perform, transmit, or otherwise distribute and sublicense the material you submit, post or display on or through the Services ("Your Content"). You retain ownership of all right, title, and interest in Your Content. However, during the course of your use of the Services, you grant [company X] a license to use and distribute Your Content. More specifically, by posting, downloading, displaying, performing, transmitting, or otherwise distributing Your Content on or through the Services, you are granting [company X], its, parent company, and their affiliates, assigns, employees, agents and licensees the nonexclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, sublicenseable and transferrable right and license to reproduce, display, distribute, adapt, prepare derivative works of, promote and perform Your Content in any medium and through any media channel for the purpose of (a) making Your Content available on the Services, (b) conducting [company X] internal business affairs, and (c) advertising, marketing and business development purposes.

B. In addition to the rights, licenses, and privileges granted above, you agree that [company X] may use and refer to your trademarks, service marks, trade names, image, character, logos, domain names and other distinctive brand features or identification in marketing material, presentations, customer lists, website materials, and other media now known of hereafter discovered in connection with the marketing, advertising and promotion of the Services.

In short, the company has the right to use anything you place on their site; in any way they choose – including the right to identify you by name and through photos and video.

There is a reason the company has chosen to legally give themselves these rights to your information – they expect to make money off of it at some point. Whether or not you have heard of anyone whose information has been used by the company yet is irrelevant. What matters is that they have claimed this right.

It is also important to note that the terms of service for this site do not include a clause that would allow you to remove your information from the site if sometime in the future you wanted content removed.

The question to you is, are you comfortable with their owning and reusing every single thing, including your identity, you have put, or will put, on their site? If not, don’t use it. If you are comfortable, go for it. Just don’t complain later.

Companies’ terms include clear legal responsibilities if when you use their services

Just because a service is free does not mean you are free to do what you’d like while on it. The use of any online service isn’t a ’right’ it’s a privilege extended to you under very specific conditions laid out by the companies in their terms of use.

Access to a company’s service is granted only when users agree to accept and comply with the responsibilities outlined in their terms of use. Reading and accepting these terms is a critical step in becoming a socially responsible digital citizen. It is a step that hasn’t been articulated clearly enough and many users are shocked to discover that their bad behavior is specifically prohibited on a site and that the site will cooperate with law enforcement in bringing users to justice when laws are broken.

For example, a popular social networking site’s terms of use include the following responsibilities that by accepting the terms you agree to be responsible for:

Username and Password

A.You must use a valid email address in order to register a username and password. When registering your username and password, you may not (1) select or use a username of another person with the intention of impersonating that person, (2) use the username of anyone else without authorization, (3) use a username in violation of the intellectual property rights of any person or entity, or (4) use a username that [company X] considers in its sole discretion as being inappropriate.

B. You are solely responsible for the use and maintenance of your username and password. You may change your password at any time. You agree to notify [company X] of any unauthorized use of your username or any other breach of security, and to ensure that you exit from your Account at the end of each session.


A.Certain Services are only available to users who have created an "Account" by completing a registration application and registering a valid username and password. You must be at least 14 years of age if you wish to create an Account. You must be at least 18 years of age and capable of forming a legally binding contract if you wish to use any fee-based Service.

Zero Tolerance Policy

A. Cyber-bullying, Cyber-stalking – using the Services to threaten a user’s reputation, earnings or employment in a deliberate and hostile manner is strictly prohibited. It is also a crime, and in addition to having your account terminated and your IP address permanently banned, you may also be criminally prosecuted.

B. Nudity and Sexually Explicit Content – using the Services to expose yourself, to broadcast a pornographic video, or to otherwise show nude or sexually explicit content is strictly prohibited. If you are, or appear to be under the age of 18, and you expose yourself using the Services, you are creating and distributing child pornography, and in addition to having your account terminated and your IP address permanently banned, you may also be criminally prosecuted.

Please note that when you use the Services, information that personally identifies you as well as your activities is preserved by us in accordance with our Privacy Policy. This information is provided to law enforcement agencies investigating criminal activities that have occurred using the Services and is sufficient information for law enforcement agencies to identify and locate you. Please act responsibly.

Restrictions on Posting Content

A.You are solely responsible for all of Your Content and all content posted under your account, including, without limitation, photographs, audio files, video files, and live streaming video, as well as any communication with other members via the instant message service and internal email service.

B. You may not post or transmit, whether publicly or privately, any material that:

i. Is false, misleading, deceptive, deceitful, or constitutes "bait and switch";
ii. Employs misleading email addresses or forged headers or otherwise manipulated identifiers in order to disguise the origin of the content posted;
iii. Contains viruses, Trojan horses, worms, time bombs, cancelbots, or any other harmful programs;
iv. Harasses, threatens, or abuses another person;
v. Is libelous, defamatory, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, vulgar, obscene, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable;
vi. Violates any applicable law restricting the export or import of data, software, or any other content, or encourages conduct that would constitute a criminal offense;
vii. Gives rise to civil liability;
viii. Advertises any illegal service or the sale of any items the sale of which is prohibited or restricted by any applicable law;

In short, by clicking to accept the terms of use, you have agreed to act decently and ethically while on the site. These are entirely reasonable expectations for a company to place on their users, but far too few users actually read to know what they’ve agreed to.

Most sites absolve themselves from monitoring behavior on their service

In addition to the problem of consumers not knowing what they have agreed to in terms of decent behavior when registering for a service, most companies fail to adequately monitor their services because they don’t want to pay for monitoring. Basically, companies say they have the right to monitor, but that they have no duty to do so.

No Duty to Monitor Content

[Company X] in its sole discretion shall have the right (but not the duty) to monitor the material posted on or through the Services including, without limitation, the content of any communication that occurs on or through the instant message service and the internal email service. [Company X] reserves the right to remove content that, in its sole judgment, does not meet its standards but [Company X] is not responsible for any failure or delay in removing such content.

This failure to monitor is what lets some users get out of hand – bullying, lying, cheating, and being generally nasty – and ruins the online experience for other users. Failing to monitor the behavior on a service increases everyone’s chances of negative experiences. Failing to monitor is particularly unfortunately on sites where users are likely to be minors as a moderator with a sharp eye and quick discipline can really help youth develop into responsible ethical users.

The next time you are registering for a service, slow down. Three minutes of reading the terms of use will let you know if you are comfortable with the way they will treat or own your information, and if you are comfortable stepping up to the responsibilities required to use the site.

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