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Proposed TLDR Act Tackles The Unreadable TOS Agreements Apple and Others Use

Technology

Isadora Teich wrote this article

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How many times have you agreed to the terms of service without reading them? Most people find them simply too long or too difficult to understand. The US government wants to make the TOS more accessible and less exploitative with the proposed TLDR act.

It’s likely you have skimmed or skipped TOS agreements thousands of times. And you are not alone in doing so.

A Deloitte survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers in 2017 found that 91% of people consent to terms of service without reading them. For younger people, ages 18-34, that rate was even higher: 97% did so.

For decades, companies have been using terms of service agreements that are thousands and thousands of words long.

Many of them even use the dreaded tech “legalese,” which is more or less a guarantee that most people cannot understand them anyway.

However, US lawmakers want to change that with a new congressional bill.

Let’s take a look!

The TLDR Act Proposal

Yes, this bill is actually called the TLDR Act. In common internet slang, this stands for “Too Long, Didn’t Read.” In the case of the proposed legislation, it stands for “Terms-of-service Labeling, Design and Readability.”

The goal of it is for tech companies to provide a TLDR section for terms of service and end-user license agreements.

This act was proposed in both the house and the senate and has bipartisan support so far. After its initial proposal, a later version was submitted by both Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).

As a consumer protection act, it is expected to continue to gain support.

Why Is This Necessary?

Some people may feel that it is simple laziness that prevents most people from reading the TOS of their apps, devices, and other products.

However, there is another way to look at it. As a business, if nearly 100% of users ignore any part of your product, that is a problem that needs to be corrected.

In fact, according to a statistic released by Congresswoman Lori Trahan in a press release, who sponsored the House version of the bill proposal, almost no one has time to read the TOS for products they use.

Doing so would take more than 75 working days. That’s more than two months just reading TOS agreements.

A 2012 study found that it would take 76 workdays for the average American to read the agreements for technology companies they use. Yet, because of the complicated language and length of many terms of service documents, an overwhelming majorityof users “Agree” without reading any portion of the contract.

The Illusion Of Choice

The simple fact is that consumers don’t really have any choice. Even if they managed to spend two months combing through the technical and legal jargon of every app, service, and device they use, this doesn’t exactly give them any options.

Even if they don’t agree with how Apple or Google wants to use their data, for example, there are only two options.

-Agree anyway and use their products.

-Say no and lose access completely to what have become the everyday tools necessary for modern life.

Think about it. Are you going to choose to lose access to things like Google Maps, Zoom, Spotify, or even your phone entirely over ideological and practical disagreements with corporations? In today’s world, this could potentially cost you your job or social life.

Trahan, a member of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce sums the situation up perfectly.

“For far too long, blanket terms of service agreements have forced consumers to either ‘agree’ to all of a company’s conditions or lose access to a website or app entirely. No negotiation, no alternative, and no real choice.”

The TLDR Act Tackles The Potential For Abuse

The fact of the matter is, about 20% of US adults lack comprehension or literacy skills.

While the average US adult simply does not have the time to digest 2 months of jargon-heavy contracts, a fifth of the population does not have the ability to understand these TOS agreements at all. This is about 40 million people.

Regardless, even the people with the literary skills necessary to decode these agreements do not have the time and do not have a real choice in the matter. According to Trahan:

The potential for abuse is obvious, and some bad actors have chosen to exploit these agreements to expand their control over users’ personal data and shield themselves from liability. This is a problem that transcends political parties, and it demands solutions like the TLDR Act that do the same by requiring transparency and returning power to consumers.”

In many other circumstances, it is considered rather unethical to present people with contracts that are intentionally impossible to understand.

Presenting people with a digital tome of jargon they can’t understand, which essentially forces them to sign away their personal data to use the basic tools of modern life, is certainly not ethical.

Changing Tides For Big Tech

Major tech corporations have been acting in this way, completely unchecked, for decades. However, over the past few years or so, this has started to change.

Epic Games took Apple to court on several continents trying to prove that it’s an illegal monopoly, for example. Around the world, governments are also starting to step in and try to check what companies like Meta and Apple can do.

The US government is just one entity starting to try and do more to protect consumers. It has become increasingly apparent over the last several years that many of these companies exploit users and do not take responsibility for the harm they cause.

This was recently exposed again by the Facebook Whistleblower.

The TLDR proposal is just one of many ways that governments are taking on Big Tech.

According to Senator Cassidy:

“Users should not have to comb through pages of legal jargon in a website’s terms of services to know how their data will be used. Requiring companies to provide an easy-to-understand summary of their terms should be mandatory and is long overdue.”

Final Thoughts on the TLDR Act

If you are interested, you can find the full TLDR Act proposal here.

Increasing transparency and ease of use for consumers is always a plus. It would be better if the majority of users could understand what they were agreeing to in the first place.

However, as long as users’ options are to accept all terms or lose access to an app or product entirely, there is an ethical gray area.

If users are forced to agree with the TOS, is understanding better what they are being forced to sign to access even the basic tools of living a major step forward?

Again, a business that provides a service has the right to set its own terms. However, should this extend to necessities?

As tech and apps continue to blend with daily living beyond fun and entertainment, this is a complex question to tackle. There are many different opinions here.

What do you think? Comment below!

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