Why we MUST read the terms of service

On May 25, the EU enabled the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This article isn’t about that. It is about a by-product of this latest regulatory obligation that has been imposed upon us. Every social media site and software company that we are connected to will be advising their clientele of updates to their terms of service due to the GDPR obligation. Sometimes known as terms and conditions, T’s and C’s, terms of use, and several other abbreviations too numerous to mention, these documents have long been thought of as a “catch-all” of fine print and legal gray areas.

Most of us never read the terms of service of any website or software product. If absolutely necessary, we scroll to the bottom and click agree and off we go to use the software or browse the site. Until now, I was one of those individuals. This time I decided to read the terms of service for those organizations that sent me a notice as well as some that I just randomly selected because once I started I found it hard to stop. I was curious. What have we been missing? Are the secrets of the universe contained within the terms of service? Have we been missing important information that could impact those organizations that we represent? What I found was quite surprising.

Note that for the purpose of this article, I have not included any opinions or information from the privacy policies. I will save that for a separate article.

Microsoft Windows

Terms of ServiceThe Windows terms of service did not contain any surprising news. It was pretty much what I think we all expect from a “terms” document from a large monopoly in that one can almost picture the room full of lawyers who were engaged in its production. It refers throughout to “other” terms that may apply, although there really is no trail to those other terms. There is a very confusing section pertaining to remote access that I reread about 15 times and still could not understand what it was that they were trying to say. Not surprisingly, the user consents to the “transmission of certain information” during use. One can only surmise what “certain” information is transmitted. Overall, this one supports the claim that terms of service are difficult to read and understand and are there strictly for the advantage of the producer.


terms of serviceGranted, this is outside of the software terms that I referenced at the start. That said, the Netflix terms of use is important to mention as it is indicative of terms of service that are relevant to the user. It is written in plain English, although at one point they do use the term “thwart.” But that’s as tricky as the verbiage gets. FYI, thwart means to prevent someone from doing something. There is even a section that advises on the bandwidth one would need to best view certain content. So, kudos to Netflix for terms of service that is actually easy and beneficial for the user to read.


terms of serviceIf you look closely at Facebook’s terms of service, you will notice that the link states “old policy.” It’s not. Here is the link to the old policy. You will note that the link to the old policy states “new policy.” It boggles the mind. Nonetheless, one has to at least commend Facebook for evolving. The new policy is not really that easy to find as all searches point to the old policy, I suspect this is because someone, somewhere, mixed up the website addresses. It couldn’t possibly be intentional, could it?

The old policy is quite funny because it begins by stating how important our privacy is to them. Walk the walk, Facebook, walk the walk. That said, it’s not a horrible document. It’s not difficult to follow and there really isn’t anything contained in the document that isn’t common sense. Rather than referencing “other” terms there are links at the end of the document.

It certainly appears that Facebook put some serious effort into their new policy, but this is definitely a buyer beware type of scenario. The new policy weaves an intricate web. It is written in what appears on the surface to be easy-to-read, upbeat, language. I admit that at the start of the read, I was rather impressed. However, that feeling quickly subsided as the document went on and on. In addition, I lost count of the number of links one would have to access and read in order to form a complete picture. There is a data policy and a privacy policy. There is a link to identify other Facebook products and one to identify other Facebook companies, all of which contain references to several other links. They reference research companies that analyze Facebook data and provide a link that goes to a page that tells us absolutely nothing, but in their defense, it’s nice and fluffy. They reference community standards and “other” terms, which link just takes you back to the top of the document. There are numerous links to other policies throughout the document and then at the end of the document is, guess what??? A bunch more links to other terms and policies! As I worked through those, they also had additional links. Eventually, I grew exhausted. Bottom line, probably a good idea to block employees from using Facebook at work.


terms of service

Google’s terms of service is quite straightforward and forthcoming. They state that there is no warranty, but it’s free, which seems fair. The document is a bit long, but quite readable and there was nothing scary that caused me to delve deeper. Like pretty much everyone else, they do have a separate privacy policy. All-in-all, not a bad read that took me under 15 minutes and didn’t confuse me in any way.


terms of service

Salesforce.com is a cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) platform. I mention it because most of my friends and colleagues who work in an account management capacity seem to use this particular tool. Second to Facebook, this was my least favorite in terms of putting all accountability into the hands of the user. First of all, they blatantly state that the user should have no expectation of privacy. They also state that at any time they can choose to charge a fee and that they have the right to reproduce, store, copy, transmit, broadcast, modify, exhibit, etc…etc.. any content that you post. BUT, if you choose to communicate with them, THAT will be kept confidential. Nice. They state that they will not bother listing the things people should not do on their site, but then they go on to state that if you do something they decide you should not have done, then you will be liable. I’m seriously not making this stuff up.

Should we bother reading terms of service?

Overall, including the terms of service documents referenced above, I read roughly a dozen documents from as many companies. I found that most were not the scary confusing legal speak documents that I was expecting. In the case of Netflix, I even learned some useful technical information. In the case of Google, it actually made me feel more comfortable with that product. Although there were a few that I did find rather onesided, I now understand that being aware of the content is not only extremely important from an enterprise perspective but will in the future be a measurement that I include when selecting a vendor or a product. In addition, from this point forward I will be including familiarity with terms of service documents as a project task for the entire team. Terms of service should not be something to fear and avoid. It should be a proactive factor in your decision process, not a reaction to a challenging experience.

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