You don't read terms of service agreements, so let a bot do it

Experts say the length and complexity of terms of service agreements deter people from reading them and warn our privacy is at risk. But here are some tips to help protect your privacy and stay informed.

A typical user agreement could take hours to read. Luckily, there's an app for that

Brenda McPhail says the length and complexity of the agreements deter people from reading them and she worries about what could happen when users don't understand the fine print. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

When consumers start using new software or devices, they have to make a choice: either agree to lengthy and often confusing terms of service agreements or don't use the software or device at all.

Experts say users often can't be bothered to read them and are agreeing with terms and conditions they don't understand.

To highlight the problem, the Australian consumer advocacy group Choice hired an actor to read the terms and conditions for the Amazon Kindle. It took him nine hours to get through the agreement.

"They're often written in legal terms because companies use privacy policies to protect themselves," said Brenda McPhail, the director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. "Lawyers are wonderful people, I work with a lot of them, but they don't write or talk the way that normal people do."

McPhail says the length and complexity of the agreements deter people from reading them and she worries about what could happen when users don't understand the fine print.

"This sounds dramatic, maybe even a little bit overwrought, [but] I think we're sleepwalking into a surveillance economy," said McPhail. "If we tolerate business models that are essentially turning us into the product, then those models are going to take over. And if we don't understand how it works, it makes it much easier for that to happen."

Help is on the way

Researchers and entrepreneurs are taking a stab at fixing the problem.

A group of academics built a free artificial-intelligence-powered analyzer that automatically deciphers privacy policies called PriBot.

The chatbot answers your questions about a particular privacy policy in real-time — even revealing how confident it is with its answer.

Melissa Kargiannakis thinks companies need to step up and do some of this work themselves for the different types of clients they serve.

She is the founder and CEO of Canadian start-up skritswap, which offers technology that companies can use in-house to craft clear agreements using shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs and everyday language.

"Half of Canadian adults are considered low literate — you can read but not well enough to fill out an online job application," said Kargiannakis. "[And], actually, as education increases, so does your preference for plain language."

Melissa Kargiannakis created technology that companies can use to craft clear agreements. (Submitted by Melissa Kargiannakis)

Kargiannakis says 79 per cent of people with bachelor's degrees would prefer plain language and she was inspired to build the technology while studying for her master's of health information science.

"I felt that it was not fair that all this amazing health research with information that we all need about our bodies is just far too dense to be able to understand," said Kargiannakis. "I mean, we see this every day in what we call life-changing documents: in tax information, in prenups, in wills, in mortgages."

How to protect your privacy and stay informed

McPhail from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association hopes customers will vote with their wallets and choose companies that protect their privacy.

"And if you choose to pay for something that protects your privacy and reject something that doesn't, eventually companies are going to get the message that they have to compete on privacy," said McPhail.

Brenda McPhail is the director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Project for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Until then, McPhail has some suggestions on how to protect your privacy and stay informed.

  • If you only read one terms of service agreement, make it the most important one.

    "Pick one website that you use all the time, something that's really important to how you function in your daily life. And just read that one."
     
  • Keep an eye out for three critical items.

    "Look for what is being collected, why it is being collected and whether the information is being used for secondary purposes."
     
  • Understand the privacy implications of what you buy as gifts for other people, from smart teddy bears to smart speakers.

    "We're not just taking our own privacy into our hands, but we're actually putting the privacy of other people at risk."

About the Author

Manjula Selvarajah

Tech Columnist

Manjula Selvarajah is a journalist, producer and syndicated tech columnist for CBC Radio One. In her former role, she was vice president marketing at a Toronto-based tech startup and holds an engineering degree from Queen’s University. Send your story ideas to manjula.selvarajah@cbc.ca.

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