You see them every time you download a piece of software or maybe sign up for a subscription online: those pesky “terms of service” agreements.
To most consumers, they can be maddening. Many appear to contain random legal words dumped from a fiendish bucket of attorney jargon. Who could possibly understand what they are asked to certify by clicking “agree” at the bottom of an endlessly scrolling page?
"They want people to read them," said Kent College of Law professor Richard Warner. "But you’re not going to read them, right?"
Right, because ... well, nobody does.
After all, who has the know-how or the time?
Fun facts: The terms-of-service agreement for iTunes is longer than Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and NBC 5’s is as long as the Gospel according to Mark in the New Testament. (Really.)
Go ahead and read our "Terms and Conditions" for this report: Anything look fishy to you? Scroll down to see if you're right.
Warner said that as frustrating as the gibberish-filled documents are, they are exactly the kind of thing he would write if he were working for a client.
"Your job is to write a business document that will serve the business purpose that that serves," he said. "And the business purposes are to legitimate an extensive amount of data collection, and to allocate loss in case something goes wrong."
But do people know what they’re agreeing to do?
To find out, NBC 5 Investigates went out to Michigan Avenue, with a slightly modified version of the agreement for our own website. (The one which stretches to Biblical proportions.)
Offering a chance to be on television, we asked passersby to take a look at it, then either agree or disagree.
Most simply scrolled to the bottom and certified their agreement, never bothering to really learn what they had signed, or the odd provisions we had added.
"As long as I’m going to be on TV, everything is going to work out just fine," Jasmine Roberts told us. She didn’t understand that by clicking the agreement, she had agreed to perform jumping jacks on camera. And to unlock her smart phone and let us rummage through the contents.
And to give us all of the money on her person at that very moment.
"I agreed to all that?" she asked. "So what happens now, y’all going to sue me?"
We didn’t sue Jasmine, or others like Paula Werman of Lighthouse Point, Florida, who didn’t notice that she had agreed to provide us with copies of her tax returns.
"No, of course I wouldn’t do that," she exclaimed, anxious for our offer of a re-do, and the chance to click "do not agree."
Indeed, during those few hours on the Magnificent Mile, we went 12 for 12. Every single person we encountered scrolled to the bottom and agreed to our terms, reading almost none of them, and shocked to learn what they had signed.
"I definitely should’ve read this more," exclaimed Kristian Tiopo, after learning that he had agreed to provide his driver’s license and social security number. "If it was more user friendly, then I would’ve definitely."
(By the way, we let everyone out of the deal.)
In truth, the lawyers probably aren’t really concerned whether you read it or not.
"Where it starts to look weird is if we think consumers are supposed to read that to be informed," professor Warner told NBC 5, noting that in the eyes of most courts, the agreements absolutely pass legal muster. "If you have adequate opportunity to read and understand, you’re treated as if you did read and understand."
Many of the agreements are rather benign, mostly containing protections for the website or business. A great majority retain the rights over content you might post.
"If you’re writing one, one of your first questions is, what data do you want to collect, and what are you going to do with it," Warner said.
But some are loaded up with unusual provisions---including a few which reserve the right to change their terms without notice. Still, the main defense a consumer is given is to click "disagree." But that prevents use of whatever they were seeking to begin with.
"Why would you read it?" Warner said. "You have no power to change anything in it!"
Did you catch what we added to the "terms"? See if you're right!