The TLDR Act Could Help You Make Sense of Terms of Service Agreements

Enough of the gobbledygook!

Key Takeaways

  • US lawmakers have submitted a bill to force web apps and services to create summaries of their Terms of Service.
  • The summaries will essentially be a bullet list of key details.
  • Industry experts have welcomed the move and argued it will make services more transparent.
Terms and conditions computer keyboard

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Very few of us, if any, actually spend time reading through the Terms of Service (ToS) agreements for the myriad of web services we use daily. A group of US lawmakers have proposed a bill to do something about this, and domain experts think it's a good start.

The bill, aptly named the Terms-of-service Labeling, Design, and Readability (TLDR) Act, seeks to force online apps and services to summarize their legalese into digestible chunks, with all the meaningful details and none of the fluff. 

"Hiding unfavorable terms within legalese is something that we've all become used to, but that doesn't make it a right or good practice," Trevor Morgan, product manager at comforte AG, shared with Lifewire over email. "Kudos to the legislators who are looking out for the average user."

Saying More for Less

Transparency advocates have long been campaigning to make ToS reasonable and understandable to the average person, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) going as far as to refer to them as Terms of (Ab)Use.

Tony Pepper, CEO of security vendor Egress, agreed. "As it stands, consumer-facing businesses use complex and lengthy terms of service agreements that many consumers simply don't have the time to read and understand," Pepper told Lifewire over email. 

"Hiding unfavorable terms within legalese is something that we've all become used to, but that doesn't make it a right or good practice."

This fact is not lost on the authors of the bill. In a statement, Congresswoman Lori Trahan, Senator Bill Cassidy, and Senator Ben Ray Luján argued that their bill seeks to make ToS more accessible, transparent, and understandable for consumers.

"This is a really fascinating proposed legislative act that hits at the core of most users' skepticism about terms and conditions," Morgan told Lifewire. "Each and every one of us has paused prior to clicking that Accept button and wondered, 'what am I actually agreeing to?'"

Drawing a parallel, Morgan said that usually, legal contracts, such as signing loan papers for a new car at the dealership, give a high-level translation and explanation of the critical line items and conditions that might affect us. However, many technology products, software, and even social media outlets don't extend users the same courtesy.

Cropped hand holding mobile phone with terms and conditions on it

Nipitphon Na Chiangmai / EyeEm / Getty Images

"The sneaking suspicion is that these organizations which are forcing us to agree to incredibly long legalese intend to do things with our information and usage patterns to which most reasonable people might object or at least pause and reconsider," Morgan opined. 

The bill lists several requirements to create short-form ToS Summary statements that are easy to understand and machine-readable. Among the information, the summary should include changelogs that record how the terms have evolved and a list of data breaches from the previous three years.

Wrong Approach?

Not everyone is impressed, though. 

"Do lawmakers think that we write terms of service to be extra-long on purpose?" asked Hannah Poteat, Manager and Senior Privacy Counsel at Twilio Inc, in a Twitter post. "Like...we're bored, and we want to confuse people, so we're just gonna throw [in] some bits from Anna Karenina to see if anyone notices?"

Businessman with magnifying glass reading small print

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Poteat agreed that while the fact that no one reads the terms of service is a problem, the TLDR bill isn't the way to fix the issue. 

"It's a misguided mess that keeps putting the burden in the wrong place: users," Poteat added. "Don't get me wrong. I'm all for a summary. Look at any ToS or privacy statement I've written /ever/, they're multi-level, summaries all over."

However, Matti Schneider from the Open Terms Archive (OTA) project that follows changes to the ToS for more than 200 digital platforms responded to Poteat saying that the authors of the TLDR bill didn't pen the bill in isolation and did reach out to those working towards adding transparency to the ToS, including the OTA project.

Adding Transparency

Morgan chimed in and said data privacy and data security are increasingly being viewed as essential human rights, and it's only fair to ask for a high-level summary without having to resort to legal counsel or spend hours poring over the contract before agreeing to it. 

He reasoned that the ideal outcome of the bill would be for users, especially non-technical ones, to understand through a bullet-point list the major implications of the terms and conditions, especially what to expect in terms of usage of private data and the security measures applied to that personal data.

Pepper agreed. "For everyday users, one of the biggest improvements would be a clearer understanding of how businesses will use their data. By making this information more accessible, the Act will bolster the rights of consumers as data subjects, empowering them to make informed decisions about how they're happy for their data to be used."

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