You know that page with a check box you haphazardly agree to on the way to signing up for various online services? The one with the hundreds (or thousands) of words of legal mumbo jumbo? Yeah, we do the same thing -- it's okay. It's because those pages, the Terms of Service, are boring, lengthy, and probably meaningless. Right? Right?!
Not necessarily. And a new study from Georgia Tech of the "top 30 social and fan creation sites" (from Facebook to Daily Motion) backs that up. Well, first things first: yes, Terms of Service agreements really are difficult to read. Of the 30 sites surveyed, an average reading level of college sophomore was required for comprehension of the TOS. To put it another way, around 60 percent of working age adults in the US (25 - 64) don't understand what they're agreeing to. "It is likely that users may not know what rights they are granting," the study says.
So, back to the question at hand: are these documents meaningless? Like so many answers in the realm of law, the answer really depends on how that law applies to you. What freedoms do you value in the content you create and/or host online?
Georgia Tech examined the freedoms we're giving up when agreeing to these documents. Most of that involves giving away whatever content is added to the service (so-called "royalty-free use"), but also includes duplicating said content elsewhere ("non-exclusive use"). In plain terms, of course, those translate to "you won't get paid for the content you add here" and "you can also publish what you put here anywhere else you want" (respectively). A small fraction of the sites studied even granted the site advertising rights on user content.
Study co-author Casey Fiesler says that clear metrics don't exist to say which of the studied sites have the most/least restrictive TOS agreements, but he points to LinkedIn as an especially extreme example. "Among the more well-known sites that we analyzed, LinkedIn takes the most rights in your work -- including the right to commercialize, and the license is irrevocable," she says.
A handful of more specific stats are in the chart below. To find out whether or not your favorite site's TOS are agreeable, the latest version should be readily available from the home page. And remember: the best defense against restrictive TOS agreements is taking the time to read and understand the document.