Thursday, October 25, 2012

Don’t Sign (or Click) Your Life Away: Google Apps and the Confusion Behind the ‘Terms of Service’ Agreement

Don’t Sign (or Click) Your Life Away: Google Apps and the Confusion Behind the ‘Terms of Service’ Agreement

Customer will indemnify, defend, and hold harmless Google from and against all liabilities, damages, and costs (including settlement costs and reasonable attorneys' fees) arising out of a third party claim: (i) regarding Customer Data or Customer Domain Names; (ii) that Customer Brand Features infringe or misappropriate any patent, copyright, trade secret or trademark of a third party; or (iii) regarding Customer's use of the Services in violation of the Acceptable Use Policy. The party seeking indemnification will promptly notify the other party of the claim and cooperate with the other party in defending the claim. The indemnifying party has full control and authority over the defense, except that: (a) any settlement requiring the party seeking indemnification to admit liability or to pay any money will require that party's prior written consent, such consent not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed; and (b) the other party may join in the defense with its own counsel at its own expense.
… Wait, what?
So basically, Google, you are telling me that as a customer, I will protect Google from loss and damage to your company and that I will also defend and not hold Google responsible for any disadvantages, damages or costs that result from a third party claim.  Oh, and that I will follow the rules about a whole bunch of other mind boggling terms and conditions upon my use of Google services. So thank you, Google, for making the rules clear and clarifying what I can and cannot do while using your services...Uh, NOT!

          The above paragraph, taken directly from the Google Apps Terms of Service agreement, is beyond confusing. Weighing in at -1.9 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scale and an average grade level at 23.7, this paragraph is almost completely impossible to read. Knowing that the average reader is most comfortable reading text at a seventh grade level, it is highly unlikely that even a scholar would even enjoy reading past the first sentence, let alone the fourth word into it.
The ever-so eye-catching Terms of Service as defined by Google Apps. ^

Obviously, it is necessary for a website, such as Google to define their terms of use, otherwise there would be chaos and no structure. But who said these terms must be written so ‘professionally’ and without clarity that only a small sample of the population will understand? When someone signs up for a website or decides to show interest in the general content of a site, typically the owners prompt him or her to sign off confirming that the individual understands the “Terms of Service” and that he or she may be held accountable for any offense that goes against these terms, so on and so forth. Websites like Google Apps provide a link to the Terms of Service, but my guess is that nine times out of ten it doesn’t even cross the user’s mind whether he or she is going to click on the link, they just don’t. (We all know it’s just a whole bunch of gibberish.)
Who really reads these things anyways? Most of the content is used for legal purposes, and to protect the rights of the company. Google cannot be held responsible for the actions of opposing companies that may offend each other within their website for whatever reason. Plus, why would Google want to set themselves up to participate in countless lawsuits posed against them, when there are measures they can take as a company to prevent such actions? With the complicated use of the Official Style and the extremely well-used euphemisms, several different activity systems may come into play within such ‘Terms of Service’. Some of the activity systems we can identify resulting from this text may be the employees of Google, the individual users, lawyers that work with cases regarding any broken rules within the Terms of Service, and even the laws themselves, that Google applies to the use of its service.
Looking at the Google Apps ‘Terms of Service’, or in this case, any website’s ‘Terms of Service’ agreements, it can be decided that the ultimate goal is not to confuse the user, but to identify what is or is not an acceptable way to use their services. Some rules or terms must be defined or people would create loopholes around the rules, hence the lengthy and complicated vocabulary used to name the guidelines. Some legal terms are required and even simple wording of ‘Terms of Service’ agreement have issues they cannot avoid.
Now, when referring back to the first example stating, ‘Customer will indemnify, defend, and hold harmless Google from and against all liabilities, damages, and costs (including settlement costs and reasonable attorneys' fees) arising out of a third party claim...’, it would be fair to say that Google Apps starts off well, with not too much unclear vocabulary, but everything beyond the first sentence turned into a bunch of jumbled words and unknown meanings. Most websites will start off with a remotely understandable statement to introduce the user to the site but just as well as the user knows they won’t be reading the additional information, so do the lawyers and the creators of the information. An interesting fact about Google itself, is that within the last year, they have revised the terms of service of the Google search engine to be understandable and clear for their users. It is almost like they acknowledge that the terms they use are incomprehensible for the average audience! They have finally started to realize that sentences like those listed under the Disclaimers like the following,
don’t do much but create utter confusion. No matter how many times I re-read that statement, I still get confused. Oh, and thank you Google Apps for the cap locks, it really emphasized the totally unclear point you are already making. They could have simply said, ‘To the greatest extent allowed by law that applies to this case, neither party can make any type of warranty.’ Simple and understandable, right? But you see, when words are taken out there is room to twist the meaning of words that are there, hence the conflict of the activity systems represented in this text. (The user vs. the lawyers and legal representatives of Google Apps.)
If websites such as Google Apps were to adopt a more understandable ‘Terms of Service’ agreement, such as the one that Google Search has adopted, users will better understand what they are signing up for and agreeing to when they click ‘accept’. It makes the consumer feel more engaged with the company and feel as though he or she is important to that specific company as well. At the least, these companies that do have confusing ‘Terms of Service’ could attempt to translate the agreements by using less elements of the Official Style and begin to recognize the importance of creating understandable terms for every user to understand.

-- Jessica D.

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