Terms and Conditions: Reading the Fine Print

Posted by Sam Moser on 9/12/19 10:38 AM

All of us have signed up for accounts online—whether they are for online banking, signing up our children for extracurricular activities, or reading the news. Before our accounts are complete, however, we must usually click an “Agree” button to confirm that we have read and understood the Terms and Conditions (T&C). The prompt frequently appears in tiny text, gives the appearance of legalese, and allows you to click Agree without actually requiring you to read the information.

Most of us do not have time to pore over thousands of words providing clarity on how a given piece of technology may and may not be used, how the company will use our information, and what our rights are as users. However, by skipping the T&C we are taking a risk. Below, you will find guidance on how to find the important information in T&C documents and advice on how you and your children can become empowered technology users.

An award-winning 2013 documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, sheds light on the trend of  expanding the scope of information gathering through consumer use of online services. The information presented in the documentary could certainly instill fear. However, armed with important pieces of information and skills, you can ensure that you and your children are using the Internet with open eyes.

An Anatomy of Terms and Conditions

Use of the service: (appropriate use, definitions of misuse)

  • Privacy policy
  • Payment information (if applicable)
  • Removal from the system, or opting out of certain components/features
  • Lawsuits, arbitration, the company’s liability
  • How to find out when the T&C is updated

Focus on These Three Sections

  • Privacy Policy: In this part of the T&C, services usually provide the clearest information regarding age minimums for use and requirements for parent/guardian permission.
  • Opting Out: This section normally provides information about how to control what information you receive from the service or service provider.
  • Payment: Did you have to enter a credit card number when you signed up, even though the service is “free?” Make sure you won’t be charged after the trial period ends. Are you relying on this free service for something important? Make sure the free version does what you need and that you understand the costs associated with features. In other words, there may be components that are included with trial and/or free versions of a tool that disappear after a certain amount of time. Additionally, by signing up for a service, you may have also agreed to a more full feature version that begins charging your credit card after the trial period ends. The fine print is crucial here.

Find out more
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Where You Can Get Help 

  • Use online T&C information databases: T&C are often updated, and slight changes in wording can have significant implications. In addition, these databases provide data on the clarity of a given service’s T&C, which could inform decisions on whether or not you decide to use the service. Take a look at the following:
    • Terms of Service; Didn’t Read: This site uses a “class” system to give grades to dozens of commonly used online services. The bullet-pointed summary they provide about each service’s T&C is helpful.
    • Clickwrapped: This is another site that rates how many of the most popular online services honor the rights and privacy of consumers. Through its colorful bar graphs, this resource rates services on Data Use, Data Disclosure, Amendment and Termination, and a Miscellaneous category. Click on a color, and you can access more detailed information about specific sections of the T&C.
  • Follow the work of organizations on the cutting edge of online rights for consumers: User rights on the Internet can feel unclear and inconsistent. Organizations such as The Internet Society and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are advocates for the rights of online users from a legal, constitutional, and corporate perspective. Their web sites provide up-to-date information about the progress they are making. EdSurge published an article in December highlighting potential changes to student data privacy, demonstrating that the work of these aforementioned organizations is expected to have an increasingly measurable impact.

Other Ways to Remain in Control

  • Open a dialogue with your children: Make sure you are aware of the applications they are using. Have conversations about their technology use and/or ensure that you are the keeper of administrative passwords.
  • Encourage use of a private web browser: While many of us have come to rely on our search engine remembering what we browsed for yesterday or keeping us logged in, have your children use one that doesn’t track anything: DuckDuckGo. Searches are not tracked or saved by this company. While it could take some getting used to, using a search engine like this will shift some of the power of the web back to you and your children as the users.
  • Contact the companies directly: It is always within your rights to get in touch with the company providing the service. If you want more information about the T&C, send the company an email or give them a call. Many companies are responsive when contacted directly.

Where do we go from here?

After reading this article, are you thinking about getting rid of all of your accounts? Maybe living off the grid? The Internet is big, and we have come to rely on it more than we realize. The services to which we connect on a daily basis have, for the most part, required us to hit the “Agree” button so that we are legally bound to follow their policies—whether we realize this or not. The next time you or a family member decides to sign up for a new service, consider using these strategies and resources:

  1. Focus on the Privacy Policy, Opt-Out, and Payment sections of the T&C.
  2. Use the databases and other resources listed above to remain informed and empowered.
  3. Contact the companies providing you services.

The more informed you are, the safer you and your children will be.


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Topics: Parenting, Technology

Sam Moser

Written by Sam Moser

Sam earned his bachelor's degrees in elementary education and psychology from the College of William and Mary and his master's degree in the integration of technology in schools from George Mason University. Sam has taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.