Nobody, except in a few very rare circumstances, ever reads the terms and conditions. This is a universal thing — nobody will wade through a 4,000-word legal document to post cat photos on the internet. Not unless they’re being paid, anyway. This is why American senators are pushing for something they call the TL;DR bill. South Africa (and most countries on Earth) could also do with similar clarity from companies.
TL;DR, if you were lurking in the wrong place at the right time, famously stands for ‘Too long; didn’t read”. Its original usage was reserved for lengthy screeds posted online, and mockery thereof. It was an excellent tool if you were a troll. Then it entered the mainstream, and now, politics. Only this bill is known as the Terms-of-service Labeling, Design and Readability, or TLDR, Act.
Hope this isn’t TL;DR
Basically, the Act hopes to get companies to provide a shorter version of their Ts&Cs, in plain language. What information is collected, and why it’s needed. How data is shared with third parties. A method for deleting collected data and what legal steps are open to users. Plus, information on previous data breaches stretching back three years. It’s… a fantastic idea, for users. And it should be applied everywhere, including South Africa.
Because, barring something special like turning your Ts&Cs into a graphic novel, nobody reads that stuff. That’s been lampooned by some companies, who have used the opportunity to sign users up for community service. Legally, that’s binding. After all, you clicked that you agreed with everything. A mandatory TL;DR would simplify this process for users. It might also keep them better informed regarding their legal rights, in the event of data misuse.
Fully-informed users are likely to be more responsible — or at least less likely to use a service whose terms they don’t agree with. Improved transparency will see tech companies — or any entity that collects data — being held accountable to misuses more often. Because if users are all aware that Social Media Company 1 selling their data off to a malicious party constitutes grounds for legal action, Social Media Company 1 is far less likely to do that.
It’s not as easy as just saying ‘Make it so’. That only works for Patrick Stewart, as far as we’re aware. There are legal issues to contend with. Legal language exists because that’s how litigation happens. Changing that for something more casual leaves room for doubt, or creative interpretation. And that could be bad, both for companies and users. But this still misses the point a little — users may be shafted either way, since they don’t have a lawyer on staff to tell them that Facebook’s new ToS is a little over-broad.
It’s unlikely that a TL;DR bill, anywhere in the world, would make for easy reading. But even cutting down several thousand words of legalese into a few hundred in plain language might have an impact. Sure, companies wouldn’t be able to hide behind the small print anymore. But there’s basically no research showing that’s a good thing, for anyone other than the company in question.
TL;DR: All sorts of companies currently hide behind legalese in their Terms of Service and Terms and Conditions. A mandated short and easy-to-understand version of these documents would result in better-informed users or customers. This is good for everyone, except maybe the lawyers who need to figure out how to make this work. Still… billable hours.