OPINION: The lie that makes criminals of us all

I accept these terms and conditions. How many times have you checked the box and moved happily on your way? Every time there’s an update, every time you want to install a new piece of software, every time you register for a blog or forum. That checkbox is always there.

Did you know that checking the box has the same effect as signing a long-form contract? That’s right, according to the Electronic Records and Signatures in Commerce Act, which took effect in 2000, your choice to check a box or enter a code into a computer is the same as your legally binding signature. The act was intended to make it possible for people to do more electronic banking, buy goods online with credit cards, and all sorts of other good things. It’s become a way for unscrupulous software companies to do anything they want to your computer.

Every so often, revised terms and conditions create a storm of controversy, such as recently when it seemed like Instagram would have the unlimited right to sell your pictures just because you posted them. Facebook has had similar debacles with its terms. Isn’t that illegal?

Quite the opposite. It is your responsibility to read anything you sign and as long as the contract is clear and understandable you can be held accountable for everything you sign and click. Technically, you’re the one in the wrong. Now, if there’s enough public furor, or if the contract is unenforceable or illegal you can get out of it. In other words, the terms and conditions can’t require you to assassinate a random person in order to use iTunes, and it can’t even require you to sit at your computer for 100 hours without sleep.

Still, while it’s legal for companies to bury you in a 5,000-word contract that has a tiny little proviso saying they now own all your cat pictures, it’s unethical and it’s bad PR. Some companies, notably Apple, have a way of making it so easy to click past those “T&C’s” because really, you know you just want to play Temple Run 2. It’s sort of a way of holding you hostage and it’s so common today that no one really thinks about it.

I’m not saying that all contracts should be 100 words or less. There are a lot of cases where copyrights need to be respected and a long contract is the way to do that. All I’m saying is that like credit card companies recently had to, software companies should be willing to put the most important changes first in a customer-friendly way, especially if you’re an existing user of their products. It took an act of Congress to force credit card companies to change… let’s hope software companies are a little smarter.

Until then… it’s really your responsibility. So take a moment to read those terms and conditions.