Ahh, Terms of Service. Let’s be honest.

They’re the screens most of us click through as fast as we possibly can, on our way to trying a new app or service. Despite the valiant efforts that developers add, like not letting us click “Yes” until we actually scroll to the bottom of the doc or a second popup giving us one last chance to read, we all skip them. Terms of Service agreements are long. They’re boring. They’re filled with hard to decipher lawyer talk and legalese. They appear at the most inconvenient times, right when we’re excited to try some new piece of tech.

The last week, Terms of Services have been front and center in a few big tech stories, where what’s in those docs have big consequences for unsuspecting users clicking yes to agree with them. The truth is we all need to read and understand what we are agreeing to when we accept the fine print. As more people started taking a look at the terms of service on several very popular sites, a steady roar of displeasure materialized and companies quickly modified their TOS to make users happy. You can look at this two ways. Is it companies being responsive, and making changes when their users ask? Maybe it’s because in general Terms of Services are setup to heavily favour the companies instead of the users?

The first big TOS story to hit the news this week centered on TwitPic , the on-the-go photo sharing app beloved by snap happy Twitter users. After signing a content sharing agreement with a big news gathering organization, TwitPic modified their TOS to state they had the right to sell the photos you upload to other sites, and negotiate licensing deals for your images without your permission, This didn’t sit well with the user community, and angry blog posts quickly followed.

Users didn’t like the fact that TwitPic might sell their photos to a news organization and cut them out of the deal. This doesn’t seem like a huge deal, until you apply some real world context. Remember the famous photo of Sully landing his jetliner in the Hudson River? That was shot on an iPhone and shared via Twitter. Dozens of the most moving photos of the Spring Revolution in the Middle East appeared via the same social media channels. Wouldn’t you like to receive proper credit and monetary compensation if you snapped those shots? On a more personal level, a shot you took of a friend at a birthday party, or of your child at the zoo could easily appear in an ad. It could be an ad for something you hate, like a rival political party or a cheesy dating site. It could be something embarrassing, like an ad for a rug rehab clinic. It isn’t always about financial gain, in the end it’s really about control over the images you create and share.

Legally, as the original photographer, you technically retain the copyright to anything you shoot. Still this doesn’t prevent a 3rd party like TwitPic from using work you upload to their service. To their credit, TwitPic responded quickly and made some minor modifications to their TOS. It now states that you can sell your own photos to the media, but TwitPic has the right to do the same. This wasn’t enough to stop me from jumping ship, despite using TwitPic just about as long as I have been using Twitter.

Dropbox was the next company to have their Terms of Service become the subject of a fierce, heated public debate. Truthfully, it’s a complicated issue and extremely technical at points. There are actually several things going on at once, including a complaint filed against Dropbox, which is being investigated by the FTC. The FTC complaint states that Dropbox users were mislead by the TOS, which states other users cannot read their files. As the investigation is still underway, there isn’t a definitive answer yet, although Dropbox is arguing the claim has absolutely no merit. I’m tackling this from the point of view of an end user. I’m not lawyer, or a developer, just a geek who uses Dropbox. If you’re interested in digging more heavily into the topic from a technology standpoint, this article from Wired is a good jumping off point, and Google has plenty on the subject from many different angles.

Users are claiming that the Dropbox TOS was changed to reflect the fact that the company might turn your data over to the US Government if prompted. Many users complained that this section of their TOS was unclear, and it made them feel that there data stored with Dropbox was insecure and subject to random rifling by Big Brother. Taking the time to read the relevant section of the TOS will in fact make it clear, that if legally requested, in the proper way, Dropbox will turn over the files stored on their servers to appropriate government agencies. This certainly bothers me.

It doesn’t bother me enough to stop using Dropbox. Why? Because a similar clause is included in the TOS of most of the services and apps we use. It isn’t specific to Dropbox at all. In fact, Dropbox has cleaned up their TOS to make this particular section easier to understand for the average user without a J.D. Basically, Dropbox has to comply with government regulations, just like every other tech company. It seems unfair to skewer them for a section of their TOS they essentially have no control over. We tweeted out a link to a story discussing this issue, and received a very speedy reply from the Dropbox team via Twitter. You can see their response below, which goes a long way to clarifying the first part of the TOS confusions. Once again though, we see a user-base uproar and a quick response from the company.

[View the story "Dropbox Responds at Warp Speed to TOS Security Concerns” on Storify]
Flickr didn’t have any major TOS issue this week, but decided to weigh in on the issues floating around. Flickr is a site that has had to deal with TOS issues in a huge way since they launched, because they need to answer many of the questions we’ve been discussing in the post day in and day out. The biggest difference in the way that the Flickr TOS, and their general policies, is user choice. Flickr gives their users a very clear choice as to what rights they maintain to photos they upload to the service and how they will be shared. Users have the option to make their photos public, semi-public (sharing with just self-selected “friends” or totally private. Users can also define the copyright for each image they upload. The options rage from the conservative, “All Rights Reserved” to a variety of Creative Commons sharing licenses. Though the photo licenses on Flickr aren’t technically part of the TOS, in essence they act as de-facto, user selectable TOS. This is a fantastic way to handle TOS sharing issues, that would be very beneficial to end users and companies.

We can clearly see that when the end user sits down and takes a good look at the Terms of Service, they often see things they want changed. What we’ve seen with TwitPic and Dropbox are extreme examples. There must exist a whole world of less inflammatory and radical TOS changes just waiting out there for users to find them. Sadly, at the rate we all read TOS, this is unlikely to happen on its’ own without an organized effort. Reading and examining TOS? Yeah it does sound boring. Still, with the examples people are digging up, it’s a subject worth digging into. The next time you install an app, instead of scrolling down at Mach 5 to jump right into the app, take a minute to see what’s there, and think about if it works for you as an end user.

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