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Be careful what you agree to, you could be cleaning the public toilets. Flickr/Ewan Munro, CC BY-SA

How not to agree to clean public toilets when you accept any online terms and conditions

How often do you see this when you’re online, whether downloading a new app or software or signing up for some new service?

Click Agree to accept our Terms and Conditions.

You click on it, but then discover you’ve just agreed to give up your future first-born child or clean public toilets for 1,000 hours.

This is what happened recently to more than 20,000 people in the UK when they accepted the terms and conditions for free Wi-Fi that included a commitment to clean public toilets, hug stray dogs, and paint snails’ shells to brighten up their existence.

Thankfully the Wi-Fi provider, Purple, says it is not going to enforce its “Community Service Clause”.

But it makes a good point. Purple says it added the spoof clause to its terms and conditions for a two-week period to see if anyone would notice. It said in a statement:

The real reason behind our experiment is to highlight the lack of consumer awareness when signing up to use free Wi-Fi.

All users were given the chance to flag up the questionable clause in return for a prize, but remarkably only one individual, which is 0.000045% of all Wi-Fi users throughout the whole two weeks, managed to spot it.

Read on, if you dare

We want free online service and free software, and we want it now. So we readily agree to the terms and conditions despite having little idea what we are agreeing to, and the service provider is in no hurry to tell us.

That’s a concern for everyone who readily accepts free Wi-Fi conections in places such as shopping centres, cafes, restaurants, hotels, bars, or any other public Wi-Fi hotspots. The Australian Communications and Media Authority said that as of June 30, 2015, an average of 4.23 million people in Australia had used a public Wi-Fi hotspot, either free or paid.

The same concerns apply when it comes to downloading free software and apps which can sometimes come bundled with other software or extensions, often referred to as Potentially Unwanted Programs. If people don’t read the terms and conditions then they won’t know what else they are agreeing to install.

We have been warned about these problems for years and yet the recent Purple example shows that people still haven’t learned.

Earlier this year the consumer group Choice raised the issue of licence agreements, terms-of-use agreements, and terms and conditions that people never read.

It gave the example Amazon’s Kindle Voyage e-reader, which it said had a minimum of eight documents that needed to be read and agreed to when buying the device, as well as documents to be read to use any subscription service.

The total word count is more than 73,000, which Choice said would take about nine hours to read. It even tasked someone to read the lot, but here’s the abridged version.

A shorter version… thankfully.

Properly informed consent

While the great majority of tech companies operate lawfully, if not ethically, the process of getting actual informed consent remains problematic. At present, just clicking Agree will do, regardless of what lies buried deep in the many words of those terms and conditions.

One survey in Britain found that only 7% of people read the terms and conditions carefully when signing up for an online service or product.

These documents are typically written in legalese, meaning that only a trained lawyer would be able to understand them properly. Yet the simple act of clicking on a check-box constitutes informed consent in the legal sense.

That same survey found that one in five people said they had suffered as a result of agreeing to terms and conditions without having read them carefully. One in ten had been locked into a contract for longer than expected because they didn’t read the small print.

Choice says “lengthy and overly complex contracts” should be considered unfair and has called for reform of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) to protect people from such agreements.

A readable solution

With billions of dollars at stake, IT companies need to make it clearer just what the consequences of using that product or service will be, including any potential dangers.

If users can give genuinely informed consent, it’s a win-win situation.

For example, if we know we’re agreeing that an online product can use some of our personal information – and we know what that information is – we could receive targeted advertising that might be useful to us, and even be a good fit for our lifestyle.

So how can we do to make sure people are properly informed in plain language about the consequences of using a product or service?

One solution that already works well is the way Creative Commons includes a human readable summary of its licensing conditions. It breaks it down to the basics then highlights anything out of the ordinary.

It’s not difficult to do this, and if you have nothing to hide, the user is unlikely to be scared off by it.

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