Should you bother reading the “terms and conditions”, or as lawyers call them, End-User License Agreements (EULA) that come with any app or software that you buy? Every consumer advocates says yes…..but we say no. Don’t bother. Why? Because life is just too short and it is likely a waste of time. Talking about a waste of time, a group of Norwegian activists decided to publicly read aloud the terms of 33 apps in a live-streamed event hosted on their website in order to make an important point. On average, they hypothesized that Norwegians have 33 apps installed, but reading the terms of 33 apps meant reading more than a quarter of a million words and it took the activists more than 31 hours. 31 hours! In fact, they concluded that it would have been easier and faster for the average consumer to read aloud the New Testament than to read the EULAs of the apps on their smartphones or computers. In effect, the terms and conditions for software and apps giving companies free rein to do almost whatever they want.
And we mean WHATEVER they want. In 2012, Chris Hoffman perused some EULAs and found they bordered on the insane. For example, Apple’s iTunes EULA expressively probited users from using iTunes to create missiles and biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. Google’s Chrome web browser, at one point, claimed a perpetual license to publish and publicly display your online banking passwords and everything else you did online. One app company reserved the right to knock on your door at 3.00am and immediately audit you to ensure compliance with its software license! To drive home this point, one software company buried a clause in its EULA that promised a $1,000 check if you read the terms and conditions. After five months and over 3,000 licenses sold, one purchaser actually found the clause.
Another company, F-Secure, set up a free WiFi hotspot in the heart of London’s financial district in June 2014. But to make a point of how meaningless the EULAs could be, it buried in its terms and conditions of the free network a “Herod clause”: in other words, in exchange for the WiFi, “the recipient agreed to assign their first born child to us for the duration of eternity”. Allegedly, six people signed up. Ask yourself, when did you ever read the terms and conditions of a wi-fi service? Answer: never.
Here’s the scary, but little recognized truth, about these EULAs; they are letting companies use your personal information in ways you never imagined. The business model for apps and online services is all about getting information from you and selling it to large data companies who then take your data and, after some complex computer crunching, turn around and sell it to companies or governments who want information about you. Most of these EULAs expressly give the software or online service companies permission to collect the URL addresses of the (other) Web pages you view and how long you view Web pages. Just image if if you visited a store one day and they planted a bug on your person that followed you around to all the other stores you visited? While they were at it, they tracked your reading behavior,what TV shows you watched and maybe even who you talked with. They’re not writing down your name, but they are following you around. You don’t have to imagine it because that’s what they are doing, thanks to the terms and conditions that you agree to when you download or use a “service”. Remember, you aren’t buying software as much as you are agreeing to a digital service.
Have you ever installed a program, only to have your desktop taken over by advertising? Guess what — you probably permitted this malware in the license agreement that you simply clicked past. The bottom line is that you are effectively required to read the unreadable — yet failing to read these, though, can results in privacy risks, unwanted software, and other nasty surprises. Their scope, length and complexity mean it is virtually impossible for a consumer to understand the “deal” to which they are agreeing.
Our advice: if you need the app or software, then don’t bother reading the EULA. Sorry, but Facebook, Google, Amazon and the other mega-digital companies aren’t going to negotiate terms with you. However, if you are on the fence as to whether to use a digital service, then try using something like the EULAlyzer, which is an app that makes it a bit easier to spot problematic clauses in terms and conditions. To use this donationware, click the plus-sign button in EULAlyzer and drag it to the text requiring analysis. You’ll see the text appear in the program’s window. When you click “analyze,” EULAlyzer searches the document for what it calls “words of interest” (reminiscent of a “person of interest” in a police investigation). EULAlyzer than assigns its Interest Rating to the program. You can then search the entire EULA for keywords–“trial,” for instance–and pull up further data on the product. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the only service that we’ve found that can alert you to the legal monsters that lurk in the terms and conditions for digital services.
Other than EULAlyzer, there’s really nothing you can do when you are confronted with the box asking you to agree to the EULA. You’ve got to have faith that someone with more time, a better legal education, or a weird fetish for huge chunks of block capitals, has taken the time to vet the terms and conditions. It’s sort of like playing Russian Roulette with your computer; just hope that you aren’t signing away your first-born.