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.
So what are you agreeing to with a cavalier click?
1. Apple: I am not a terrorist
If you use
iTunes software and happen to be an international terrorist, don't be surprised if you someday find yourself shut off from your playlists.
In its user agreement, Apple bans use of the software by those in "U.S.-embargoed countries" and "anyone on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of Specially Designated Nationals or the U.S. Department of Commerce Denied Person's List or Entity."
"You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture or production of missiles, or nuclear, chemical or biological weapons," it adds, reducing the likelihood Lady Gaga will work detailed instructions for a plutonium-based neutron trigger into a song.
In another paragraph, Apple warns that the iTunes software "is not intended or suitable for use in situations or environments where the failure of, or errors or inaccuracies in the content, data or information provided by, the apple software could lead to death, personal injury or severe physical or environmental damage, including without limitation the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft navigation or communication systems, air traffic control, life support or weapons systems."
Any content you create or post via a Web portal or social media site could become the property of your host.
2. Google: Do what you want with my stuff
The 2008 launch of
Chrome browser was met with controversy when a scan of its user agreement uncovered that users "give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free and nonexclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any content which you submit, post or display on or through, the services." Amid objections, Google added: "You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in content which you submit, post or display on or through, the services."
3. Yahoo: Own my stuff
Before that, in 1999,
bought the free website hosting service Geocities and amended the user agreement so it would exclusively own any content hosted on these sites. Bad publicity and a boycott led Yahoo to abandon that plan.
4. Facebook: Give advertisers information about me
Since its inception Facebook has been a lightning rod for controversy, often related to the terms users must abide by. One notable example was when many users were angered to learn about Beacon, an advertising initiative that would mine user data and publicly post online purchases they made. In 2009, the site was prompted to amend its privacy agreement when existing language was deemed open ended enough to allow it the ability to collect and repurpose posted content in any way it desired.
5. Amazon Kindle: My blog belongs to you
Internet law blogger
recently cautioned against using
Kindle as an outlet for blogs.
His concern is that "when you sign up, you're giving Amazon a license to do virtually whatever it wants with your blog's content."
"This includes modifying your content, or even turning it into a book without additional permission from you," he adds.
The specific text Young refers to reads: "You hereby grant to each Amazon party, throughout the term of this agreement, a nonexclusive, worldwide right and license to distribute publications as described herein, directly and through third-party distributors, in all digital formats by all digital distribution means available, such right to include, without limitation, the right to: use, reproduce, adapt, modify, and create derivative works of and use and distribute, as we determine appropriate, in our sole discretion."
6. Kodak: I'll pay annually for free storage
Amid the rush to cloud-based storage, be wary of how safe your data will be and for how long.
Kodak Gallery, for example, offers "free" online photo storage. But if you don't read the user agreement, you may face the unpleasant surprise of having those precious memories disappear.
7. Time Warner Cable: I'll behave myself
How you behave yourself online is also defined, albeit with some gray areas, in many user agreements. Video game networks, for example, ban offensive language, including obscenities and slurs.
Time Warner Cable's
Internet connections "may not be used to upload, post, transmit or otherwise make available any materials or content that violate or infringe on the rights or dignity of others." Does a YouTube video of getting hit in the crotch by a baseball bat count as an affront to your dignity?
Failing to read before you click can also lead to ongoing charges, unwanted downloads, the monitoring of what sites you visit (and for how long) and even hijack your CPU.
8. Digsby: My computer is yours to use as you wish
There was considerable outcry a couple of years ago when users of the instant-messaging client and aggregator Digsby discovered that signing off on the user agreement gave the software the right to collect data and install additional programs derided by users as "malware" and "spamware."
Agreeing to the terms meant you also gave permission for the software to "use the processing power of your computer when it is idle to run downloaded algorithms (mathematical equations) and code within a process. You understand that when the software uses your computer, it likewise uses your CPU, bandwidth and electrical power. The software will use your computer to solve distributed computing problems, such as but not limited to, accelerating medical research projects, analyzing the stock market, searching the Web and finding the largest known prime number."
9. E-cards: Please send me spam
E-cards, those cute and glittery holiday messages relatives love to send, often require you to approve a user agreement. Doing so can open the floodgates for spyware and pop-up programs.
10: McAfee/Microsoft: I won't tell anyone what I think of your product
To the dismay and ongoing disregard of hackers, many software packages prohibit modification or reverse engineering. Other software also tries to suppress users who might want to critique their purchase.
"Hidden within the terms of many EULAs are often serious demands asking consumers to sign away fundamental rights," the
says on its website. "Many agreements on database and middleware programs forbid the consumer from comparing his or her product with another and publicly criticizing the product. This obviously curtails free speech and makes it more difficult for consumers to get accurate information about what they're buying by inhibiting professional watchdog groups like
from conducting independent reviews."
This is commonly done by forbidding "benchmarking," measuring the performance of hardware or software in a controlled and defined environment. EFF cites anti-virus giant McAfee (now owned by
for having included such language in past agreements.
-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.
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