There’s nothing like a bit of Willy Wonka wonder to jazz up your licensing agreement reading.
In 2005, PC Pitstop, a company offering general computer services including security, decided to prove that no one reads end user license agreements – the ubiquitous fine print that must be agreed to before downloading programs like iTunes.
PC Pitstop buried a sentence inside the license agreement for one of their own computer applications promising a monetary reward to a limited number of users who emailed them. Months passed without a nibble. In the end, it took “five months and more than 3,000 sales before the first person dropped us a line asking about the clause.” That customer won $1,000.
Seven years of unthinkingly agreeing to iTunes software updates later, tech columnist Larry Magid pointed to PC Pitstop’s stunt as a warning bell for the dangers of not reading these agreements. He cites the fine print buried in the user agreement for eWallet, a program that saved online login information but acted as a trojan horse for recording your Internet history for advertising purposes. He translates the user agreement as follows:
I have a deal for you. In exchange for a free piece of software that helps you keep track of your passwords and other log on information, I’m going to install other programs on your PC that will track your web surfing and display advertising that pops-up on your screen. There will also be other types of ads on your computer based on information we collect. Does that sound like a good deal to you?
Magid notes that hitting “I agree” to eWallet’s user agreement is “the same thing as signing a contract with pen and ink.” This is meant to be alarming. A study from Carnegie Mellon calculated that the average Internet user would need to spend 76 days a year to read and understand the privacy policies and license agreements of the websites and software they use. That is nearly 4 months of 8 hour workdays. If every company buried treasure in their privacy policies and user agreements, then finding them would be the equivalent of a part-time job.
But in many ways this is just a 2.0 version of an old problem. The impossibility of following fine print is mocked or derided everywhere from late night infomercials to car purchases. As Priceonomics has written before, most Americans have very little idea that they regularly waive their right to sue over workplace discrimination or faulty products due to arbitration clauses in their employment contracts or physical product agreements.
In some ways online user agreements and policies may be an improvement – at least there we can use ctrl-f to seek out suspicious terms like “collect” (all your data), “third party” (the companies buying all your data) or “arbitration” (replacing your right to sue with the right to complain to an arbiter hired by the company). And, if we’re hopeful that someone may replicate PC Pitstop’s experiment, “financial consideration” and “prize.”