A look at the continued erosion of our online rights

In light of the news Verizon has been poking and prodding the Oath terms and conditions, we decided to have a look at what other gems the internet giants bury in the complicated text.

As part of the new terms of service, Verizon/Oath have included a clause in which the user waives the right to participate in any class action lawsuit. The changes went relatively unnoticed, perhaps due to the attention being diverted towards another clause which allows Verizon/Oath to read your emails, but perhaps this is a clever bit of PR from the execs. Draw the attention of the world to something which can be altered easily if the fallout is too great, while providing comfortable breathing room from Yahoo and the potentially litigious and expensive data breach of yesteryear.

Using the ‘Terms of Service; Didn’t Read’ (TOSDR) website, we had a look at what users are agreeing to when they actually sign-up. For an industry which preaches about transparency and the principles of trust, the internet giants certainly do make it difficult to keep track of what they are doing. Terms and conditions are a perfect example of this; inaccessible, intricate and tiresome, it’s almost as if the objective is to make them overly-complicated so the user doesn’t ask questions.

If you haven’t had a chance to look through the TOSDR website, we would highly recommend it, however if you just want a quick browse, here are a couple of the areas we found quite interesting.

  • Fingerprint and other unique identifiers
  • Waiving the right to class action lawsuits
  • Tracking users on other websites
  • The right to never be forgotten
  • Changes to the terms and conditions
  • Scope of the copyright license

While these companies and brands might want to project the idea of friendliness and camaraderie, recent evidence has shown them to be anything but. This is just another example.

Fingerprint and other unique identifiers

Using biometric markers to authenticate an individual is becoming common for unlocking phones, so it does make sense some firms will be collecting this information. However some might be quite surprised on the number and variety of companies who have the right to do it. Just to be clear, we’re not saying they all do, but if it is in the terms and conditions it would be a fair assumption.

Firstly, there are a couple of companies where it makes sense. Google is one, and while it is not stated on the TOSDR website, it would make sense if Apple was collecting this information as well. These guys manufacture smartphones where a fingerprint reader might be included as a feature, so no problem there. But the others are a bit unusual.

Why, for instance, would the BBC need to collect fingerprint data on users? Fox News is another, as is CNN. These are news sites who have no logical purpose for collecting this information.

Waiving the right to class action lawsuits

This is one aspect of the terms and conditions which will be more applicable to those on the US side of the Atlantic, as the culture of liability and class action lawsuits has not made it across to Europe just yet. There is work being done by the European Commission to simplify the job of holding corporations accountable, but these cases will have to be led by consumer groups; the business practice of class actions lawsuits is unlikely to grow over here.

Among those who insist on user waiving the right to any potential class action lawsuit in the future are Instagram, Microsoft, Netflix and Steam. Some of the terms and conditions simply state you cannot participate in a class action lawsuit, Instagram’s for example, while others prevent you from ever going to court. In the Netflix terms, the user agrees it will not take the firm to court under any circumstances, instead any disputes will be settled through less formal arbitration. The decision of this arbitrator will be final and not subject to appeal.

Tracking users on other websites

This is an area which has gotten Facebook into a bit of trouble recently, and while it tried to give a feeble excuse and incredible shaky justification, CEO Mark Zuckerberg did point to other websites; TOSDR also confirms that many services track their users through third parties, collecting data freely as they roam the world wide web.

Google, Amazon and Microsoft are companies who stalk their customers across the digital landscape, while Netflix lets third parties do the dirty work for them.

While this is not a practice which will be favoured by the user, there are also a couple of firms who might well have the best intentions in mind. Twitter, for example, tracks users but deletes the information after 10 days. This will help the platform create a more relevant advertising platform, i.e. informing Twitter of the users most recent interests, but does at least try to maintain a sensible position by deleting the information. Wikipedia is another which uses temporary tracking.

These are only the big boys who have been identified to date, we suspect the number of websites and services who track users would be quite shocking.

The right to never be forgotten

For those who are trying to tighten up the spray of personal information across the internet, this one might be a bit irritating. Written in the terms and conditions of certain firms is a clause which says the user cannot delete their account. This is one area which will is addressed in the upcoming EU GDPR, though these are protections only for the Europeans.

If you want to have concrete control over your personal information, including the right to be forgotten, do not use the following services; WordPress, Skype, Evernote, World of Warcraft, Runescape, Zoosk, Hypster, eBuddy or BearShare.

While many technology companies will be keen to emphasise to the user that they do not own anyone’s personal information, the aforementioned companies do not have any such concerns. Once you sign up, you are losing any control over the information which you hand over.

Changes to the terms and conditions

This is a scene which is often seen on the silver screen, most notably when doing deals with the devil. When a character uses the term ‘I didn’t sign up for this’, it is usually followed by another character producing a magnifying glass and reading out an obscure and miniscule section of the terms and conditions, proving they did indeed sign up for it. However, it appears some companies don’t even bother trying to trick you anymore.

We suspect a large proportion of the general public might be shocked to find out companies can change terms and conditions without any consultation or notification. Logically, it seems to completely undermine the concept of the terms and conditions, as well as making the ‘I have read’ tick box at the bottom redundant. What is the point in clarifying whether a user has read the contract, if you are going to change it without notifying them?

So who are the guilty culprits; GitHub, YouTube, Lastpass, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, Apple, WordPress, WhatsApp and Skype. There are numerous others, but these are the most notable brands.

What is the point in asking a user if he/she understands the terms and conditions at the beginning of the service, if it can be changed without knowledge or consent at any point. A user could violate a company’s policies without realizing. It makes the entire process of getting consent in the first place completely redundant.

Some might argue that due to the number of changes to the terms and conditions it would not be practical to inform the user every time, but that doesn’t seem to be the consensus across the industry. Companies like Dropbox and Tumblr reserve the right to make changes, but they will at least notify the user.

Scope of the copyright license

Copyright law gives you control over how the content you create (videos, posts, articles etc.) can be used and monetized, though the breadth of copyright agreements in the terms and conditions is quite wide.

Some companies, like Flickr for instance, allow you to choose a copyright licence, others, like Tumblr, have a limited but eternal copyright agreement, while others just take the content off you completely. YouTube is an example of the latter, which TOSDR describes as ‘broader than necessary’:

“The user grants Youtube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license that is sublicenseable and transferable, and that can be used without limitation for the promotion of the service, in any media format and through any media channel, provided it is in connection with Youtube, its successors’ and affiliates’.”

In short, if you create something and upload it to YouTube, forget about any rights to it. YouTube is not alone here though. Facebook “goes beyond the requirements for operating the service”, Instagram is the same, while the Twitter copyright license is “very broad with almost no limitations”.

Perhaps the most interesting one is Twitpic which states it will take credit for any content you produce.