You’ve certainly agreed to terms of service (TOS) documents at some point in your life.
Whether or not you’ve actually read them is a whole different story. In fact, a recent study showed that essentially no one reads TOS agreements. This became clear when researchers added a section to a TOS document that said the signee would have to give up their first born child! Luckily for the people involved, it wasn’t a real contract.
Of course no one wants to read through thousands of words of legal mumbo jumbo. That’s why almost nobody reads TOS agreements. However, as made evident by the first-born child example, there can sometimes be important things buried in there. Here’s how to quickly read a TOS document.
What Are Your Rights?
One of the most important aspects of a TOS document are the sections that deal with your rights in relation to the service. Whether it’s an app, software, a website, or something else, you want to know what you can and can’t do. These are some of the top concerns:
- Can You Opt Out of the Service? At the time of signup, you’re probably so excited about the product or service, you aren’t thinking about stopping using it. But at some point, you might want to opt out. You should find if this is an option, or if you’re locked in when you sign the TOS.
- What Happens if You Want to Sue the Company? A lot of TOS agreements these days include an arbitration clause. Essentially, this means if you want to sue the company for damages, you will have to settle outside of court. This is often through an arbiter appointed by the organization; so these rulings often don’t result in the plaintiff getting what they want.
- Do You Still Own Your Content: Many sites and services function through user-submitted materials like text and images. This is how most social media sites work. But who owns that content after you post it—you or the company? That’s something you should find out before signing the TOS. Avoid using any services that retain content rights if you care about the things you’re posting.
Read Anything in All Caps
It’s really annoying when people online make posts in all caps. However, when reading a TOS agreement, it’s a good idea to keep an extra close eye on those sections. When something is put in all caps, that’s a sign that it requires extra emphasis over other, more standard sections. Even if you’re going to skim or skip over most of the TOS document, you should at least pay attention to these parts. This is true if you are looking to join a social media service or buy a web domain. If they contain something unreasonable, you’re going to have a hard time convincing a court or arbitrator that you couldn’t read something put in all caps.
How Can You Quickly Get Through a TOS Document?
Now that you have a few ideas of what to look for when reading through a TOS agreement, how do you do it faster? Looking for all these specific sections will still probably take you 15 minutes, which is time you don’t want to be spending on reading legal writing. This is especially true if you’re signing up for a lot of services that require you to authorize their TOS.
If you’re on a computer, one of the best ways to speed through a TOS document is to use the finder tool (Ctrl + F). This allows you to input words or phrases that you want to find in a document.
For example, you could use this to find all places the TOS mentions “opt out” or “arbitration.” Using this tool, you can quickly find all the key information hidden in a TOS agreement. After doing this for a few of the key points, look through the document for any sections in all caps. Reading a TOS this way will save you time, while also letting you know if there’s anything nefarious hiding in the contract.
Pretty much no one wants to read TOS agreements. And that’s why almost no one does it. However, it’s a good idea to know what you’re signing before you do it. Consider these ways to quickly read a TOS document.