If you get a warm and fuzzy feeling when an app or website makes you agree to Terms of Service (ToS), as if you’ve just entered a mutually beneficial legal agreement, you might want to think again: Terms of service, particularly from free sites, don’t exist for user protection, but rather for the legal protection of the company you are interacting with online and to enable the collection and sale of user data to third-parties.
Websites mean that they are interested in collecting, storing and likely selling your personal data to third-party advertising services who then use your data to try to sell you things you will presumably buy.
Say, for instance, you get engaged and share that news on Facebook. Facebook’s terms of service — which allows it to collect data from just about everything you do on its site and anywhere else on the Internet — will result in all of the ads you see on Facebook suddenly becoming geared toward expensive jewelry, potential wedding gifts, flowers, etc. (at least, for women).
This comes with limited responsibility on the provider’s behalf, because while they are able to benefit from your data financially they are not responsible if it is stolen and they are allowed to discontinue services at any time.
Google is a shining example of all of this, with terms of service that permit harvesting your data to presumably to provide you with the most optimized search results possible, but in reality it is at least just as interested in using that data to make inundate you with targeted advertising. And yet Google isn’t responsible for your data if it is stolen and faces no penalty when it discontinues, without warning, its services. A fine example of that was when the company, having virtually decimated all competition in RSS market with its now-defunct Google Reader, caused an uproar/panic among its highly dependent users when it disbanded that service.
So what can privacy-minded users do?
- Paid Services. To avoid getting creamed with targeted ads from the various web services you use, try using those that aren’t free — because if they’re free, they’re almost certainly ad-supported. Those that require payment probably aren’t ad-supported and will only share your personal data with law enforcement agencies when they are legally bound to do so (i.e., during investigations). Plus, paid services have the benefit of having to answer to their users and are less likely to disappear into thin air without warning.
- Know Your Wraps. Paid and free alike, many sites use terms of service that are explicit at least in making you acknowledge that you are entering an agreement (these are clickwraps), though others enjoy the legal theory that if you navigate anywhere from their landing page you are in effect consenting to their terms of service (these are browse wraps). Either way, make sure you read the terms of service — at least as best as you can, because they can be absurdly long (like PayPal and iTunes, for instance).
- Executive Summaries: Try to use services that offer clear, concise summaries of their policies. And if you need help knowing which sites have trustworthy terms of service, you can try the various ToS rating services that are out there, like Terms of Service: Didn’t Read and Terms of Service & Privacy Policies in plain English.
- Careful Precision. Facebook is an example of a site that lets users alter, at least to an extent, the types and extent of data that they share with third-party advertisers. For sites that do this, read carefully and make those fine-grained settings adjustments. And if it all seems like a little too much, consider discontinuing your use of those services — even Facebook.