Too Long, Didn't Read My Rights

I'm not a huge fan of the internet acronym tl;dr. For those who are unaware, it stands for "too long; didn't read." As someone who writes long features for a magazine, I like to think readers will read a longer piece of writing if it is properly engaging. However, there is one form of writing that certainly doesn't meet that standard: terms-of-service agreements.  Sure, you'll likely page through the agreements for longer, seemingly weightier agreements like mortgages and credit cards. But what about the daily legal pacts you sign as a matter of course? Want to buy something from the iTunes store?  You'll have to wade through over 15,000 words of legalese. Even then, should you want to download an app for your iPhone, you'll need to consent to yet another agreement. Most consumers agree to these without bothering to read the handful of clauses in which they sign away the bulk of their legal rights. Thankfully, a new website is crowdsourcing the task of translating complex lawyer speak into key bullet points anyone can understand.

ToS;DR cuts through the morass. The project analyzes terms-of-service documents from a variety of popular websites and boils them down to the elements that most concern consumers. In simple language and graphics, it rates companies on their consumer friendliness, looking at privacy, the ability to cancel services, and who owns the copyright to the material you've posted. The website relies on users to devote the time to parsing the agreements. So far, it includes many of the most popular tech companies—Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon, among others—as well as cell phone providers like AT&T and Verizon (both of which receive poor marks for not informing customers when their information is requested by the government).

Here's what the Twitter guide looks like:

A quick glance shows that Twitter's terms are a mixed bag. The social network has good marks for informing users and offering an opt-out for tracking, but poor grades when it comes to letting users cancel their account. ToS;DR offers longer explanations for these ratings when you click the "expand" button.

ToS;DR is still a bare-bones project—it just launched in June—but holds a lot of promise. While companies will still try to obfuscate their agreements consumers at least have a tool to make the process understandable.

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