What are we really agreeing to when we sign up for new websites?

11-2-16provincetermsandconditionsPhoto courtesy of Pixabay


“I have read and agree to the terms and conditions.”

But I didn’t, not really.

Odds are, you didn’t read them before agreeing either.

It’s a meme-worthy joke now that this is the most frequent lie we tell.

With every new service we sign up for online, from music streaming to social networks, comes that little check box to confirm you understand what you’re agreeing to.

But there’s often no summary of these terms, and the only available explanation of them is  provided through a link laid out in pages and pages of nearly unintelligible legal jargon.

Companies want to be sure to cover all their legal bases, whether you can understand it or not.

Even if you did understand everything you were reading, you’d never have the time to go through the terms for every site you use.

One estimate made in 2008 put the needed time for the average internet user to read all of their user agreements at over 600 hours.

Considering we utilize the internet much more than we did in 2008, that number has undoubtedly increased exponentially.

A more recent look at smartphone apps, done this year by Norway’s Consumer Council, concluded that the average Norwegian would need 31 hours to read the terms and conditions of just their apps.

Many of the apps evaluated were popular with American audiences as well.

For example, it took approximately 95 minutes to read the terms and conditions for the Candy Crush app.

Yes, Candy Crush.

A puzzle game about pieces of magic candy has 95 minutes worth of legally binding contracts for you to read and agree to.

Playing on the knowledge that no one knows what they’re agreeing to, multiple organizations have woven outrageous clauses into their user agreements as a warning satire.

In one study done earlier this year, terms such as agreeing to give up your first born child and having your data shared with your employers were hidden in the user agreement for a fictional social network.

Out of a sample of 543 college students, 98 percent of them missed the dubious terms in the agreement if they read the agreement at all.

More famously in 2010, the British video game seller Game Station added a clause to their user agreement laying claim to online shoppers’ “immortal soul.”

The agreement, which politely gives customers five business days to surrender their soul upon request, was an April Fool’s joke designed to point out that no one cares to check what they’re agreeing to.

As a reward for those who did pay attention to the terms, a checkbox allowing users to opt out of surrendering their soul was provided along with a £5 coupon for their purchase.

This kind of stunt may be all fun and games, but what does all this mean for the average user?

For most people it means a risk to your privacy.

When you agree to terms without understanding their content you can’t know who your information is being shared with or what it’s being used for.

For instance, the site may be collecting location or browsing data on you to target ads specifically to you along with storing whatever user data you have on the site. And by clicking that checkbox you effectively told the site “sure, go ahead.”

The use of this data may pop up in ways you certainly didn’t expect.

This year Spotify’s end of the year campaign was comprised of localized ads announcing unique user habits with phrases like,  “Dear person in the Theater District who listened to the ‘Hamilton’ soundtrack 5,376 times this year. Can you get us tickets?”

Keep in mind, this is real user data. Although it’s not matched up with a username, someone’s real, supposedly private listening habits have become public knowledge.

Sites like tldrLegal aim to provide users with a summary of the most important parts of a site’s terms and conditions.

If you’re concerned about the major points of Facebook’s policies for example, you can check them out here, like what information and content of yours they can use.

That being said, maybe you should be concerned, at least a little.

You probably knew that Facebook used a certain amount of your data to target ads at you.

But Facebook also has the ability to keep tabs on what sites you go to even after you click out of the site thanks to Facebook plugins on those sites and cookies.

Facebook also announced they will now be using those plugins to target ads to people who don’t even have a Facebook account.

With the degree that the internet is integrated into our lives every day, there is simply no way we can know everything we agree to when we check off that little tick box confirming we do.

But it’s important to be aware of the finer points of what’s contained in those agreements.

It takes only a few minutes to look up a summary or do a little research if you aren’t sure you can trust a company or site.

Site reviews, news updates and legal summaries are all available to help inform you on what you’re getting into.

Those few minutes of research may just preserve your privacy, or maybe even your “immortal soul.”

By Julia Province

Julia Province is an editor for MBU Timeline. She is majoring in communications studies and minoring in psychology at Missouri Baptist University. She has a love for all things photography and Photoshop, but in her free time she can often be found participating in one of MBU’s group yoga classes.