Complexity

Where exactly do I click "accept"?

Information Overload rears its ugly head in many respects, including in relatively mundane matters that are part of daily life.  Take banking, for example.  You agree to extensive terms and conditions (that you probably won’t read) before you can transfer from your checking account to your savings account.  Have you purchased something from eBay recently?  You are agreeing to their extensive rules and policies as well.

Google’s terms of service are only 20 sections but by using Google you agreed to the “use of your data in accordance with Google’s privacy policies”, which is a completely separate document with 35 different privacy practices that vary based on the Google product you are using.  Not only that, but the 35 policies may be updated from time to time “without any notice.”

Then there is the End User License Agreement, or EULA, which is required for everything from buying an e-book (more on this shortly) to using a hosted e-mail service such as Gmail.  These agreements operate on the principle of using information-to obfuscate.  A large amount of information is presented to the user that covers all legal issues inherent in a transaction, but is so lengthy, complex, and possibly even vague that the user simply gives up and clicks the “Accept terms and conditions” button or equivalent.

For the vast majority of cases, accepting the EULA causes no further problems, and the users will likely forget about the agreement they just entered into and move on with their busy lives.  The problem is that most people don’t read or think about the EULA, and what it may mean.

If you walk into a book store, or even buy a book online from Amazon, you exchange money for a physical object, in this case a book. You are then free to do whatever you want with the book, read it where ever you want, loan it to a friend, or resell it at a second hand bookstore.  You could even end up reselling it via Amazon’s own Web site.  However, if you go to Amazon.com and purchase an eBook for the Kindle e-reader, the transaction is significantly different.  If you dig far enough into the license agreement, you will find this: “Unless otherwise specified, Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.”  This should come as no surprise as digital content, similar to software, is typically licensed as opposed to sold.

This is not, however, a distinction without a difference.  While the difference between licensing and purchasing an item may not seem important to most consumers, however, it does matter in our eBook transaction.  In accordance with the EULA, the Kindle book can only be viewed on the Kindle e-reader or on a supported device using Kindle software.  A Kindle book can not be resold.  A Kindle book can be loaned in a limited sense, but under a restrictive set of rules, namely that each book can only be lent once for a 14 day period and the content provider has the right to opt out of that service.

This distinction may seem trivial and the vast majority of book buyers and average consumers will not notice, or even care about it, that is until something happens that makes them realize they have agreed to a very restrictive EULA as opposed to having outright ownership.  The amount of information that is pushed at us on a daily basis obscures the important details that are contained in these agreements that we routinely enter into every day.

In the case of software downloads, EULAs can contain clauses allowing the company to do a variety of things, including (in at least one case) download invasive spyware to a user’s computer.  Despite these risks, the vast majority of EULAs go unread.

Indeed, to illustrate this point, PC Pitstop, a PC diagnostics company, inserted a clause into one of its own EULAs that promised a monetary reward if the user sent an e-mail to the address provided in the EULA.  Four months and 3,000 downloads later, one solitary individual finally wrote in and claimed his $1,000 prize.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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