The Scoop: If the internet were to have a catchphrase, it’d be “TL; DR,” which is an abbreviation for “too long; didn’t read.” Skimming a blog post has become second nature to most web users, but they can get themselves in trouble by skimming a website’s Terms of Service. Fortunately, Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (ToS;DR) is a grassroots project dedicated to reading these dense paragraphs and delivering concise reviews to help consumers make responsible decisions — particularly when signing up for a dating service.
Whenever I see a Terms of Service page, my eyes glaze over, and I start scrolling as fast as humanly possible to find a button to get me out of all that legalese.
My dad, who’s a contracts lawyer and a natural-born cynic, flinches when he sees me agree to a Terms of Service without reading a single word of it. He acts as if I’m selling my soul to the devil — and, I suppose, I wouldn’t know it if I were.
I’m not the only one skimming through the mind-numbingly dull Terms of Service, though. Around 91% of Americans consent to terms and conditions without reading them. We trade knowledge for expediency when we click “I agree” on a signup page, and our ignorance makes us vulnerable to unethical and potentially harmful policies.
In 2012, a tech-savvy group of friends saw the need for greater clarity in the Terms of Service agreements on the web, and they started a global project called Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (ToS;DR) to do what no internet user had done before: read the Terms of Service on all websites.
Hacktivist Hugo Roy launched ToS;DR as a platform where knowledgeable individuals would read, review, and summarize the Terms of Service across popular sites. He and his close-knit team extracted the essential information from complex contracts and highlighted which practices were good and which practices were bad from the consumer’s perspective.
Today, the nonprofit organization continues crusading into unknown and unread territory to inform the public about privacy issues and data-sharing practices on a variety of platforms, including dating sites. ToS;DR’s volunteer reviewers cover everything from the scope of the copyright license on cloud-sharing services to the personal data protections (or lack thereof) on social networking services.
Code Communist Michiel de Jong described the ToS;DR team as pragmatic tech enthusiasts. “We’re excited about how internet technology has changed our daily lives, but at the same time we’re critical about the way technology sometimes impacts our lives in more negative ways,” he said.
A Volunteer Team Uses Common Sense in Reviews
ToS;DR is changing internet culture by making short, easy-to-understand Terms of Service reviews readily available to anyone curious about what exactly they can expect when they sign up for a social networking site, a dating site, or another online service.
“If you sign up for a service without having read the Terms of Service, it’s hard to know what you agree to,” Michiel pointed out. “This may be especially relevant for dating services where you often input data that you want to be treated respectfully by the commercial operators of a service.”
This volunteer-driven online community stands up for consumers on the web and tackles privacy issues by posting informative blurbs and thorough ratings on the Terms of Services established by major websites.
ToS;DR currently has 70 active reviewers who use common sense and logic to analyze complex contracts and deliver savvy reviews. The Phoenix Dev Team maintains the software for the site, and other staff members work on keeping the reviews up to date and putting the nonprofit group’s donations to the best possible use.
Most ToS;DR volunteers never meet one another in person. They come from all corners of the globe to join the cause because they believe in the mission statement and want to contribute their time and energy. “Some of us have been active since the start, six years ago,” Michiel said, “and others only started this year.”
Maintaining such a vast trove of information isn’t easy, but many passionate individuals do what they can to make it work. In the past year, ToS;DR has picked up steam thanks to the support of DuckDuckGo and other privacy-conscious groups, and today the site publishes new Terms of Service reviews almost every day.
“We hope to keep up a good coverage of the terms of service of the top 100 internet services,” Michiel said, “and also of any service for which a volunteer is interested in reviewing it. And that includes dating services, of course!”
Over 100,000 Users Arm Themselves With Knowledge
ToS;DR has approximately 100,000 users on its browser extension. It also feeds data to DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Essentials browser, which protects the data of over 2 million users. DuckDuckGo and ToS;DR work hand in hand to create a safer online space where people can browse without worry.
DuckDuckGo has donated money to keep ToS;DR running and is a valuable partner in the effort to bring greater transparency and privacy protections to the web. “Things like that make you realize that not everything in internet technology is about capitalist money-making,” Michiel said. “For a lot of people, there is also a lot of ethics involved in protecting the privacy and other rights of internet users.”
People who use Firefox and Chrome can install ToS;DR as a browser extension to get real-time Terms of Service reviews as they visit websites with verified reviews. An icon will appear on the right side of the address bar to indicate a review exists for the site. The user can click the icon to read the Terms of Service review and form an opinion on it.
Of course, users can also look up individual reviews on the ToS;DR homepage. The reviews offer a summary of each paragraph in the Terms of Service and use plain language to break down everything a new user needs to know. In the past, the reviewer would manually input a note into the database, but DuckDuckGo helped the team develop an annotation tool that makes this process run more quickly and smoothly.
The team thoroughly breaks down not only what the Terms of Service says, but whether the terms are a good thing or a bad thing for the user. It ranks each term as positive or negative and offers an overall rating from Class A (best possible) to Class E (raises serious concerns) for the online service.
“In the near future, we hope to start using some text recognition algorithms to help reviewers to quickly see that a certain text is maybe very similar to a text from another review,” Michiel said.
Defending Privacy in an Increasingly Interconnected Space
Privacy has become a hot topic in the online dating industry in the last year. Facebook made headlines as its irresponsible data-sharing practices came to light and caused many online users to wonder where their private information was going — and what it would be used for.
Meanwhile, the European Union passed and implemented sweeping privacy laws — known as the EU General Data Protection Regulation — and caused many international dating sites and apps to adjust their Terms of Service. Dating services have now taken steps to keep their members better informed about internal privacy practices so that online daters have a better understanding of where their data could go. If their dating profile ends up on a partnering dating site, for instance, online daters have a right to know that and sign off on it (assuming they’ve read the Terms of Service).
“Your personal data is valuable, and it’s yours,” Michiel said. “If you allow a service to use your data, you want to make sure that they will handle it with care. Terms of Service and Privacy Policies contain promises about what a service will or will not do with the access you give them, so it’s quite important that these services are held to a standard.”
ToS;DR has been instrumental in keeping people informed about their privacy rights and which companies pose a risk to them. After reading its reviews, online daters can get a good sense of which online services they can trust with their photos, texts, clicks, swipes, and private messages.
People often email ToS;DR’s team to thank them for working hard to protect the privacy rights of people across the web. But Michiel said it’s even more meaningful when that thank-you note comes with an offer to help out. After all, the reviews wouldn’t exist without those individuals who decide to roll up their sleeves and work for the cause.
“For me, the fact that so many people are willing to contribute to our collection of reviews is often the biggest motivator to make sure the platform keeps working,” Michiel said.
ToS;DR Reads the Terms & Tells You What You Need to Know
It’s just not reasonable to expect someone on the internet to pause on the way to instant gratification and read several paragraphs of tightly packed text. And companies know that. Many of them bank on you not taking the time to read the Terms of Service, so you won’t fully understand what you’re trading in exchange for the online service. It may not be your soul, but it could be your right to privacy.
Online daters frequently divulge sensitive personal details (ranging from their age and location to their drinking habits and sexual experience) to sign up to a dating platform, and their right to privacy should be protected. Thankfully, some altruistic organizations are taking steps to keep people safe as they search online for a date.
ToS;DR is leading that charge by creating a user-friendly resource where a Terms of Service contract isn’t nearly as complex and convoluted. The site’s clear rating system helps users make informed decisions about where to invest their time and where to input their information.
“We hope our community reviews give an insight into how concerned users react to clauses that services put into these documents,” Michiel said. “Too often, it feels like a one-way street where the company offering a service writes these legal documents, trying to safeguard themselves against all kinds of commercial risks in their terms, and users just accept whatever is written there without scrutiny or objection.”