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Mobile App Review: A Look At Terms & Conditions, Part 1
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Mobile App Review: A Look At Terms & Conditions, Part 1 - Executive Leadership Articles

Mobile App Review: A Look At Terms & Conditions, Part 1

Executive Leadership Articles

Mobile App Review: A Look At Terms & Conditions, Part 1

It’s really just a surrender. We know we should read anything we agree to, but the terms and conditions we say we read and agree to are an impossible reality of everyday life: too long to get through, too dense to comprehend, too poorly written to take seriously, and too ubiquitous to give an appropriate amount of attention. Reading all the user agreements would take hours we just can’t spare. So we surrender to the consequences (real or imagined) of our ignorance and click “agree.”

One contract law professor, in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered program, said in a 2014 interview that the number of people who read these things is “zero,” and that he wasn’t rounding down from some tiny number. He meant literally zero, and added that not only is nobody reading end-user licensing agreements, but that it was an appropriate number, because nobody should read these things.

In our review of medical tracking mobile apps, we expressed concern about using these apps without knowing what they were doing with our data. It’s one thing to track our locations as we’re crawling through rush-hour traffic; it’s another to let our medical information fall into the wrong hands. The app we recommended, a simple and elegant bit of software called Round, comes with a Terms of Service agreement that, when copied to a word processor at 10-point font, fills seven pages of painful-to-read legalese.

We ran Round’s agreement through Microsoft Word’s readability tool. The tool examines sentence length and word length to assign a rating on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale. Fewer words per sentence and fewer letters per word result in lower grade-level scores, thus indicating that a selection is more readable. Round’s TOS has an astonishing 28.1 words per sentence with a grade-level score of 15.3, or roughly the reading level of a college junior. For comparison, consider that most mainstream newspapers aim for tenth-grade readability, and Henry James’s “Daisy Miller” has a grade-level score of 10.5. Miller, whose work is famous for its dense language, long sentences, and grammatical gymnastics that test the mettle of even the best English major undergrads, manages a whopping 30 words per sentence but is five grade levels more readable than the TOS.

The cynical explanation for the downright unreadability of these agreements is that it is intentional, a barrier designed not to be bridged even by the willing, so that service providers can get away with whatever they want without fear of being found out. The dense language, the length of the document, and the mess of capital letters combined with tiny fonts and single-spaced paragraphs all work together to make you scroll to the bottom and click the agree button without actually reading anything.

The less cynical explanation is that our modern litigious society makes such language necessary: in order to cover all their bases, providers think of specific language defining all terminology and all situations that might get them in trouble. A general, broad explanation might be easier to read, but it allows for ambiguity that may not hold up in court. In short, the legal teams that draft these agreements are only doing their jobs in protecting their clients from claims of liability in case something should go wrong.

The truth is most likely some combination of the two perspectives, especially if one can do the moral and generous twists of viewing the agreements as attempts at transparency. You use the app, so the provider is letting you know what you can and can’t do with it, while also informing you of what it can and can’t do with data collected from your use.

But why does transparency mean such impossible reading? If escalators are installed in multi-story buildings to give customers better access to product, why would merchants make them impossible to use by adding spikes and razor wire? The language in these user agreements is razor wire on top of razor wire, with only two alternatives to navigating them: accept ignorance, lying about our having read them, or simply not use them.

The latter is really not an option in today’s society. We need our smart phones, web services, and mobile apps to get by. So we guiltily opt for the former: ignorance and lying.

In part two of this examination of user agreements, we’ll move past the philosophical and get into the practical: what these agreements actually do and how we--users and providers--might do a better job of communicating as receivers and senders.

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Mobile App Review: A Look At Terms & Conditions, Part 1 - Executive Leadership Articles

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