Should Internet-based Firms Explain Terms and Conditions to Users?

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There are many users of internet based platforms, like Facebook and Google, who are unaware of the existence of the terms and conditions that are available on the platform websites for users to familiarise themselves with and understand. The terms and conditions outline what is expected of both parties in agreement and also what both parties can and cannot do including with private data. Whose responsibility is it to popularise these often long policies to users?

This question was one of the most debated and discussed at the just ended Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2016 (FIFAfrica16) which was organised by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). Sharing of user data by internet based firms, either upon request by particular governments or other entities has become one of the most worrying factors for many internet users. Users of social media platforms do not entirely have control over who has access to their data, neither do they always have an understanding of the privacy policy associated with using these platforms.

As part of the panel discussion on transparency and accountability of intermediaries at #FIFAfrica16, Ebele Okobi, Head of Public Policy, Africa, Facebook, stated that “terms of service are the main mechanism used by companies to communicate with customers. Read them”. In other words, it is the responsibility of the user to read and understand what the terms of service say. However, most users do not read the terms of service “before clicking accept” and as pointed out by Anriette Esterhuysen of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), firms hide behind that user ignorance to achieve their strategic goals at the detriment of user privacy.

 

Do Terms of Service Govern the Relationship?

“Terms of services do not govern the relationship between users and the company,” noted Ms. Okobi. She added that terms of service are the mechanism by which companies communicate with their users on the product. This implies that a firm can take an action that will affect a user with or without his/her permission.

 

What can be done?

Terms of services need to be in clear language and displayed boldly for users to read and understand. Internet-based firms should also consciously create awareness about the importance of reading the terms of services and also interpreting them to users. The firms should take the first step in explaining to users what the terms of services actually mean and what are they agreeing to for using the products. Terms of service should be simplified for users to understand the risks involved in signing up onto a platform and also outline how their data will be collected and used.

Meanwhile, users need to understand the rights they are giving up to internet-based firms when they check the “I agree” box on terms of service. On an ongoing basis, companies need to communicate with users to help understand why they need to collect their information and assure them the data being collected will be secured and not shared with third parties without their consent.

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