Why are terms of use so terrible?

You don’t read the license agreement on software you download. You know you don’t. Same for the terms of service or privacy policy on websites. It’s not because you’re stupid and can’t handle reading the agreements (you’re not), but when a site’s terms of service makes you scroll past the tl;dr legalese and all you want to do is use the site, clicking the “I agree” checkbox is awfully tempting. Trust me, I’ve done this too, and it’s for good reason.

As an example, the Facebook terms of use–oh sorry, the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities–is over 4,200 words long. No one’s going to read the whole thing unless they’re really bored, a lawyer, or writing an article on long terms of use. These words aren’t even approachable ones unless you’re well versed in reading the things, and that’s the point. They’re so dense that you have no idea what you’re letting Facebook (or any other site, for that matter) do when you click “I agree”. Granted, sites and software do have to cover all their bases. I understand that. But can’t there be a summary of what the legal terms mean for those of us who don’t have a clue? I’m not normally a proponent of tl;dr summaries, but in the case of extreme niche documents like legalese I make an exception.

Facebook’s Privacy Policy is almost exactly 6,000 words long. I wish I were kidding. For a site that supposedly makes it easy to share what you please with whomever you please, they certainly don’t make it easy to understand what they’ll do with your information. These should probably be milestones in writing. “Congratulations, you’ve passed Facebook’s privacy policy length, and your prose is probably more readable no matter how bad it is.” No matter how bad your writing is, at least more people will read it than any site’s terms of use or privacy policy, even if it never leaves your computer. That’s a small comfort, at least.

I’d definitely pay attention to a terms of use or privacy policy if a dramatic reading or other hilarity were involved, especially if Richard Dreyfuss finished his reading of the iTunes license agreement. I don’t even use iTunes, much less Windows or Mac, but I’d consider virtualizing it up if it meant listening to a dramatic reading of the EULA before downloading the software. Admit it, fellow Linux users. You would too.

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