Archive for the ‘terms of service’ Category

More on TOS: Maybe Documenting Intent Is Not So Smart

February 29, 2016 1 comment

In my last post, I wrote that “Reviewers should reject research done by violating Terms of Service (TOS), unless the paper contains a clear ethical justification for why the importance of the work justifies breaking the law.”  My friend Mako Hill (University of Washington) pointed out to me (quite sensibly) that that would get people in more trouble–it  asks people to document their intent to break the TOS.  He’s right.  If we believe that under some circumstances breaking TOS is ethical, then requiring researchers to document their intent is not strategic.

This leaves us in an untenable situation.  We can’t engage in a formal review of whether something breaking TOS is justified, because that would make potential legal problems worse. Of course we can encourage individuals to be mindful and not break TOS without good reason. But is that good enough?

Sometimes TOS prohibit research for good reason. For example, YikYak is trying to abide by user’s expectations of ephemerality and privacy. People participate in online activity with a reasonable expectation that the TOS are rules that will be followed, and they can rely on that in deciding what they choose to share. Is it fair to me if my content suddenly shows up in your research study, when it’s clearly prohibited by the TOS?  Do we really trust individual researchers to decide when breaking TOS is justified with no outside review?  When I have a tricky research protocol, I want review. Just letting each researcher decide for themselves makes no sense. The situation is a mess.

Legal change is the real remedy here–such as passing Aaron’s Law, and also possibly an exemption from TOS for researchers (in cases where user rights are scrupulously protected).

Do you have a better solution?  I hope so. Leave me a comment!

No One Reads Terms of Service

April 18, 2010 1 comment

Nope, no one reads terms of service (TOS). According to boingboing, on April 1st, added to its TOS that by clicking, you give them your immortal soul. Check this box to opt out. 7,500 users didn’t check the box!

Even if people did read TOS, most people probably couldn’t understand them anyway. Carlos Jensen and Colin Potts showed that the reading level of most TOS is well above the reading level of most Internet users. Of course whether people can read or understand something doesn’t affect whether it is legally binding. But a further complication is that there’s nothing stopping people writing TOS from putting in terms that aren’t enforceable. The only way to tell if something is enforceable is to litigate it which, doesn’t often happen just cause it’s so expensive. Even experts often can’t agree which ones are valid.

So welcome to the bizarre present: we are ruled by documents that no one reads, that most folks couldn’t fully understand if they did read, and that are filled with conditions many of which are not legal/enforceable anyway!

Seat-of-the-pants online community management lives on!

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment

This Tuesday was the class on managing deviant behavior in Design of Online Communities. My teaching notes say, in part:

* How are standards defined?
— Old days (example: LambdaMOO):
– Seat of pants, by volunteer

— Corporate sites:
– Company defines Terms of Service that users agree to

We read “A Rape in Cyberspace” by Julian Dibbell, and talked about how things are different now for most sites. In Dibbell’s account, volunteer community administrators (“wizards”) had to decide what behavior was allowable with only vague guidelines that were open to different, subjective interpretations. Today, volunteer community management is less common. Sites have written Terms of Service (TOS), and professional, paid customer support reps handle complaints and judge whether a person has violated the TOS. It’s not about a community searching for shared values, but about a corporation making strategic decisions with financial implications. Handling complaints takes staff time, and that costs money.

Later in class, we discussed the unfortunate students who were informed that they were violating the TOS of the site they had chosen to study for their class project. They aggravated the wrong person on the site, who contacted a volunteer moderator. The moderator decided what the students had done–asking people if they’d like to be interviewed–was a TOS violation, and canceled one student’s account. The site is a large, corporate one, but sub-groups within it have volunteer moderators. Was requesting interviews really a TOS violation? Not by my reading. So what happened? The volunteer moderator took some vague guidelines and made a subjective interpretation.

My general policy for site choice is that students should avoid sites focused on controversial topics–unless they have some strong personal connection to the topic. We’ve had some fantastic papers on health support groups, but written by people who suffer from those conditions or have close family members who do. In this case, I decided to make an exception and let student who were not getting a divorce look at a divorce support board. It didn’t work. The locals wondered–who are these women, and why are they bothering us? They didn’t say or do anything remotely disrespectful, but their presence there was unwelcome. I won’t make the mistake of allowing exceptions to the policy again. The TOS could be interpreted either way. In this case, the moderator used the letter of the law to get rid of folks she didn’t think should be there.

The parallel  between this and LambdaMOO incidents of old is striking. Was the volunteer moderator different from the LambdaMOO wizard of old? Nope, not at all. (“The more things change,….”)  And maybe that’s a good thing. It feels more like a real ‘community’ when a local leader can give someone the boot, whether their reasons are ‘fair’ or not.

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