Accept, agree, submit. Is there a solution to unreadable online user agreements?

October 4, 2018 in

According to a 2017 survey by Deloitte, 91% of consumers accept online service agreements on a daily basis without actually reading them. This is due to the fact that service agreements are too long and incomprehensible, which makes them extremely unfriendly to users. Clicking on "accept, agree and submit" seems therefore the best way to save time but, as Alexandra Samuel points out in her article for the Wall Street Journal, "failing to read user agreements amounts to giving up control over both our privacy and our content".

Service agreements need to be restructured in order to prioritize the users' interests and accessibility, while at the same time offering them an opt-out. A first step in this sense would be to get rid of all-or-nothing agreements. In fact, most of them offer users the possibility to opt out from the service altogether but not from specific provisions with which users may disagree (for instance, the ones which let companies resell data, republish content, track location or target with ads). A better approach would be to make agreements modular: in this way users will be prompted to read through agreements in their entirety and decide which parts they want to agree to.

Service agreements need to be rewritten in order to be readable by non-lawyers. GDPR is helping with that, as it requires privacy policies to be written in plain language: this represents a big step forward even if it does not apply to service agreements in general.

According to Alexandra Samuel, a modular approach would also make it easier for people to read terms of service if users knew which provisions they have agreed to in the past and which they have rejected. The idea is that any provision similar to something previously approved is presented in green, while anything similar to something previously rejected is marked in red. Those parts which do not seem similar to anything already seen before will be highlighted in yellow, so that users can focus their attention only on those ones.

Another idea would be to implement a smart terms-of-service system able to anticipate users preferences based on how similar people respond to specific agreements and provisions. Whenever users visit a site, a third-party data-collection service would track which clauses in a terms-of-service agreement they agree to, and which they reject. Then the collection service will use this data to find out which other users are similar based on choices made.

All the previously presented proposed solutions will require big changes to the legal, technical and customer-service approaches used by online platforms, howeverr, companies hsould bear in mind that offering better user agreements could become a competitive advantage for them.

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