Gotcha! Group uncovers privacy lies in websites' fine print

Privacy advocates rate, review terms of service for popular sites to inform user decisions about handing over personal data

What are the odds that the average person reads the ToS (terms of service) before signing on to a new social networking site, email service, or any other service or software? Probably slightly worse than the odds that the average user will, indeed, RTFM (read the freaking manual) before calling the help desk when trying to figure out a new software or service. In other words: slim to nil.

A group of privacy enthusiasts has launched a free, open-source-inspired project called Terms of Service; Didn't Read (ToS;DR) in the hopes of helping users make better-informed choices before blithely clicking Agree when presented with those walls of legalese. By the group's assessment, clicking "I have read and agree to the terms of service" is the "biggest lie on the Web."

That tendency to blindly agree to ToS is understandable. The wording tends to be dense and confusing to the point that you need a lot of time -- and perhaps a law degree -- to realize whether your click means you're about to hand over all rights to your personal data; your self-created content; personal info on your friends, family, and peers; and more.

That's where ToS;DR comes in. It's a website that rates and labels site terms of privacy policies, from very good (Class A) to very bad (Class E). Per the creators' description of the project, "We are three volunteers who met through free software and online rights advocacy. We are trying to fight the unfair situation in which big websites make us sign Terms-of-Service agreements that are too long to read and understand."

Just who are the privacy activists behind the program asking for financial assistance? Among the founders are Hugo Roy, the project leader and a self-described hacktivist at Free Software Foundation Europe, as well as a law student. Joining him are Michiel de Jon, an independent "freedom hacker," programmer, and co-author of the remoteStorage protocol, and Jan-Christoph Borchardt, who curates open source projects and designs Web apps.

The site's ratings, along with user-friendly reviews, aim to break down the pros and cons of a particular service's terms, and they come from expert curators who take the time to slog through them. The project's been under way since June, though right now, the founders are seeking donations via an Indiegogo campaign to allow them to purchase resources and hire more hands. For example, they want to hire full- and part-time expert curators "who will double-check all discussion outcomes and make sure the reviews and ratings reliably reflect the consensus in the open discussions."

In its current form, ToS;DR provides class ratings and reviews for several sites. The reviews include specific breakdowns on what a particular site is doing well and where it may be falling short.

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