While activists have been raising the issue of consumer awareness on the internet over a decade now, given terms and conditions of use run into pages, most users just click ‘accept’/sign and move on. Purple, a UK based wi-fi company, hit upon a novel way to highlight how the onerous drafting of ‘terms & conditions’ prompts people to not bother with a perusal. The company, according to a Times of India report, was able to get over 22,000 people to also sign up for public service tasks while signing on for free wi-fi. As people accepted the terms and conditions without reading them, most agreed to clean sewer blockages, portable lavatories, scrape chewing gum off the streets, and even provide hugs to stray cats and dogs. The company says it doesn’t intend to get people to complete such tasks, but was conducting an experiment to check how aware users were. The surprising part is that there was just one person in 22,000, who detected this anomaly.
Such “skipping the reams of fine print” is common for most of services and has enabled the likes of Google and Facebook to mine deeper into user data. With people unknowingly accepting such terms and conditions, the companies get easy access to users folders, contacts and pictures. While one side of the picture is the consumers’ unwillingness to read through the terms and conditions, the other side is that the companies, by design or default, draft these in convoluted phrasing, and to be as long as a mini doctoral thesis. Data privacy battles thus are becoming common in the developed jurisdictions and companies are being prohibited from mining data. But, it would be a better solution for all if companies were to make terms and conditions more readable and leave it to the user to decide if she thinks of the service essential enough to sign on or not. Google/Facebook can state upfront, and in simple terms, how much control the company would have over the user’s data and how much data needs to be shared. Given how the regulators did this for the insurance and mutual fund industry, it can certainly be done for online services. As for consumers, clicking “I agree”/“yes” saves time, but also puts you in a spot you do not wish to be in.