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TheStreet Open House

10 Things You Didn't Know You Signed

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- If you have ever installed software, you are probably a liar.

Any program you add to your hard drive, or Web service you use, will come with a set of rules, detailed in the Terms of Service or End User License Agreement. These are the pages and pages of text the majority of folks might, at best, skim the first few paragraphs of before clicking "I Agree" and getting on with life.

You may get an unpleasant surprise if you click "agree" without reading software and Web user agreements.

You may be surprised to find what you have agreed to via "shrinkwrap" or "click-through" agreements.

To make the case that no one actually pores through all that legalese, the software company PC Pitstop included instructions on how to claim a $1,000 prize via email within its EULA. It took more than 3,000 installations before an alert user noticed the hidden award.

GameStation, a video game retailer based in the U.K. had some similar fun with its online terms of service, giving it "a nontransferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul." Anyone who called them out on the demand got a coupon that knocked a few bucks off their next purchase. The company later relented and decided against harvesting any of the more than 7,500 souls to which it was entitled.

A survey by Stanford University found that 97% of users automatically hit "agree" when faced with a user agreement. A similar study by Carnegie Mellon University in 2009, published in I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, found that actually reading through every word of all that fine print would be very time-consuming -- in the course of a year it could add up to as much as eight days of non-stop reading for the average user.

"We contend that the time to read privacy policies is, in and of itself, a form of payment," Aleecia McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor wrote. "Instead of receiving payments to reveal information, website visitors must pay with their time to research policies in order to retain their privacy."

Estimating the "value of time" as 25% of average hourly salary for leisure and twice wages for time at work, they estimated that "the national opportunity cost for just the time to read policies is on the order of $781 billion" and upward of $365 billion if the pages were merely skimmed. The study urged the Federal Trade Commission to step in if businesses fail to improve the readability of their agreements.

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