DHC Weekly: Terms of Service; Didn't Read

May 17, 2019

 

Hi DH fans! This week on the blog I want to draw your attention to a resource that is less about research and more about every day safety and security as we navigate the shark-infested waters of "the Internet." Terms of Service; Didn't Read is a browser extension that assesses and rates the user agreements that many of us automatically agree to without a second thought, for the sake of convenience. If you install TOS;DR, a little button offering a letter grade starts to pop up in the top right corner of websites you visit.

For example, when I open privacy-prioritizing search engine DuckDuckGo, a little green "A". When I open Google, a cautious orange "C". When I click on these letters, I get a little summary of the points in their respective terms of service that led TOS;DR to assign the grade, as well as, of course, a link to the terms of service in full, so I can see for myself.

For DuckDuckGo, here is TOS;DR's assesment of what I'm agreeing to when I use their search engine, copied directly from the drop-down write-up associated with the A grade, which it describes as meaning "the terms of service treat you fairly, respect your rights and follows the best practices":

No Tracking: DuckDuckGo doesn't save your searches and doesn't send your searches to other sites. No personal information is saved either. No cookies are used by default, but cookies can be saved on your computer for some features (e.g. settings). “We also save searches, but again, not in a personally identifiable way, as we do not store IP addresses or unique User agent strings. We use aggregate, non-personal search data to improve things like misspellings.”

Conditions may change, but your continued acceptance is not inferred from an earlier acceptance flow: I think this is the correct case: although they mark updates, they do not contact the user. (Which makes sense because they don't have contact details, but still.) Also, the changes take effect immediately.

There is a date of the last update of the terms

The cookies used by this service do not contain information that would personally identify you.

By contrast, the write-up for Google's C grade, which is described as meaning "The terms of service are okay but some issues need your consideration," is significantly longer, detailing the many issues with Google's privacy policies. Some selected information includes: "Your identity is used in ads that are shown to other users," "this service may collect, use, and share location data," "this service can read your private messages," "Google can use your content for all their existing and future services," but also "you can request access and deletion of personal data," as a positive.

f you were to read the terms of service for these sites in full, you would likely get tired out or bogged down in legalize and pages and pages of text fairly quickly. And yet, this information is absolutely vital to anyone interacting with these sites and services. A tool like TOS;DR goes a long way towards improving our literacy and preparedness when it comes to the use, storage, and exploitation of our personal data and information by big tech companies like Google or Facebook.