Terms of service are the most important documents that define the relationship between user and social network. Unfortunately, most ToS are often over complicated, unread or misunderstood, which can lead users to agree to conditions that they might not otherwise agree to. To wit, a parliamentary committee in the U.K. has issued a report, calling for simpler terms of service.
“Let’s face it, most people click ‘yes’ to terms and conditions contracts without reading them, because they are often laughably long and written in the kind of legalese you need a law degree from the U.S.A. to understand,” said Andrew Miller MP, science and technology committee chair.
Having dense legal language is the standard operating procedure for social networks, mostly because they need to clearly define the relationship between user and provider to protect against lawsuits. However, some companies (like Linkedin) have taken steps towards clearer language in their ToS to satisfy the legal department while still informing users.
Socially responsible companies wouldn’t want to bamboozle their users, of course, so we are sure most social media developers will be happy to sign up to the new guidelines on clear communication and informed consent that we are asking the Government to draw up.
The crux of the issue, as the committee sees it, is that the terms of service provided by many sites are not good documents when it comes to securing informed consent from users. In the case of Meetme, a lawsuit was filed in San Francisco that alleged that users aged 13 to 17 couldn’t legally consent to the service’s ToS. More importantly, they probably couldn’t even read it because of its complexity.
The committee’s recommendations are a first step they hope will pressure the government into creating comprehensive legislation; however, these recommendations are by no means legally binding. Of course, with most social networks headquartered outside the U.K., the recommendations are unlikely to have much — if any — legal bearing.