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Reading the Fine Script: Service Providers, Terms and Conditions and Consumer Rights

This year, an increasing number of incidents, related to consumer rights and service providers, have come to light. This blog illustrates the facts of the cases, and discusses the main issues at stake, namely, the role and responsibilities of providers of platforms for user-created content with regard to consumer rights.

On 1st July, 2014 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint against T-Mobile USA,[1] accusing the service provider of 'cramming' customers bills, with millions of dollars of unauthorized charges. Recently, another service provider, received flak from regulators and users worldwide, after it published a paper, 'Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks'.[2] The paper described Facebook's experiment on more than 600,000 users, to determine whether manipulating user-generated content, would affect the emotions of its users.

In both incidents the terms that should ensure the protection of their user's legal rights, were used to gain consent for actions on behalf of the service providers, that were not anticipated at the time of agreeing to the terms and conditions (T&Cs) by the consumer. More precisely, both cases point to the underlying issue of how users are bound by T&Cs, and in a mediated online landscape—highlight, the need to pay attention to the regulations that govern the online engagement of users.

I have read and agree to the terms

In his statement, Chief Executive Officer, John Legere might have referred to T-Mobile as "the most pro-consumer company in the industry",[3] however the FTC investigation revelations, that many customers never authorized the charges, suggest otherwise.  The FTC investigation also found that, T-Mobile received 35-40 per cent of the amount charged for subscriptions, that were made largely through innocuous services, that customers had been signed up to, without their knowledge or consent. Last month news broke, that just under 700,000 users 'unknowingly' participated in the Facebook study, and while the legality and ethics of the experiment are being debated, what is clear is that Facebook violated consumer rights by not providing the choice to opt in or out, or even the knowledge of such social or psychological experiments to its users.

Both incidents boil down to the sensitive question of consent. While binding agreements around the world work on the condition of consent, how do we define it and what are the implications of agreeing to the terms?

Terms of Service: Conditions are subject to change

A legal necessity, the existing terms of service (TOS)—as they are also known—as an acceptance mechanism are deeply broken. The policies of online service providers are often, too long, and with no shorter or multilingual versions, require substantial effort on part of the user to go through in detail. A 2008 Carnegie Mellon study estimated it would take an average user 244 hours every year to go through the policies they agree to online.[4] Based on the study, Atlantic's Alexis C. Madrigal derived that reading all of the privacy policies an average Internet user encounters in a year, would take 76 working days.[5]

The costs of time are multiplied by the fact that terms of services change with technology, making it very hard for a user to keep track of all of the changes over time. Moreover, many services providers do not even commit to the obligation of notifying the users of any changes in the TOS. Microsoft, Skype, Amazon, YouTube are examples of some of the service providers that have not committed to any obligations of notification of changes and often, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that service providers are keeping users updated.

Facebook has said that the recent social experiment is perfectly legal under its TOS,[6] the question of fairness of the conditions of users consent remain debatable. Facebook has a broad copyright license that goes beyond its operating requirements, such as the right to 'sublicense'. The copyright also does not end when users stop using the service, unless the content has been deleted by everyone else.

More importantly, since 2007, Facebook has brought major changes to their lengthy TOS about every year.[7] And while many point that Facebook is transparent, as it solicits feedback preceding changes to their terms, the accountability remains questionable, as the results are not binding unless 30% of the actual users vote. Facebook can and does, track users and shares their data across websites, and has no obligation or mechanism to inform users of the takedown requests.

Courts in different jurisdictions under different laws may come to different conclusions regarding these practices, especially about whether changing terms without notifying users is acceptable or not. Living in a society more protective of consumer rights is however, no safeguard, as TOS often include a clause of choice of law which allow companies to select jurisdictions whose laws govern the terms.

The recent experiment bypassed the need for informed user consent due to Facebook's Data Use Policy[8], which states that once an account has been created, user data can be used for 'internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.' While the users worldwide may be outraged, legally, Facebook acted within its rights as the decision fell within the scope of T&Cs that users consented to. The incident's most positive impact might be in taking the questions of Facebook responsibilities towards protecting users, including informing them of the usage of their data and changes in data privacy terms, to a worldwide audience.

My right is bigger than yours

Most TOS agreements, written by lawyers to protect the interests of the companies add to the complexities of privacy, in an increasingly user-generated digital world. Often, intentionally complicated agreements, conflict with existing data and user rights across jurisdictions and chip away at rights like ownership, privacy and even the ability to sue. With conditions that that allow for change in terms at anytime, existing users do not have ownership or control over their data.

In April New York Times, reported of updates to the legal policy of General Mills (GM), the multibillion-dollar food company.[9] The update broadly asserted that consumers interacting with the company in a variety of ways and venues no longer can sue GM, but must instead, submit any complaint to “informal negotiation” or arbitration. Since then, GM has backtracked and clarified that “online communities” mentioned in the policy referred only to those online communities hosted by the company on its own websites.[10] Clarification aside, as Julia Duncan, Director of Federal programs at American Association for Justice points out, the update in the terms were so broad, that they were open to wide interpretation and anything that consumers purchase from the company could have been held to this clause. [11]

Data and whose rights?

Following Snowden revelations, data privacy has become a contentious issue in the EU, and TOS, that allow the service providers to unilaterally alter terms of the contract, will face many challenges in the future. In March Edward Snowden sent his testimony to the European Parliament calling for greater accountability and highlighted that in "a global, interconnected world where, when national laws fail like this, our international laws provide for another level of accountability."[12] Following the testimony came the European Parliament's vote in favor of new safeguards on the personal data of EU citizens, when it’s transferred to non-EU.[13] The new regulations seek to give users more control over their personal data including the right to ask for data from companies that control it and seek to place the burden of proof on the service providers.

The regulation places responsibility on companies, including third-parties involved in data collection, transfer and storing and greater transparency on concerned requests for information. The amendment reinforces data subject right to seek erasure of data and obliges concerned parties to communicate data rectification. Also, earlier this year, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in favor of the 'right to be forgotten'[14]. The ECJ ruling recognised data subject's rights override the interest of internet users, however, with exceptions pertaining to nature of information, its sensitivity for the data subject's private life and the role of the data subject in public life.

In May, the Norwegian Consumer Council filed a complaint with the Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman, “… based on the discrepancies between Norwegian Law and the standard terms and conditions applicable to the Apple iCloud service...”, and, “...in breach of the law regarding control of marketing and standard agreements.”[15] The council based its complaint on the results of a study, published earlier this year, that found terms were hazy and varied across services including iCloud, Drop Box, Google Drive, Jotta Cloud, and Microsoft OneDrive. The Norwegian Council study found that Google TOS, allow for users content to be used for other purposes than storage, including by partners and that it has rights of usage even after the service is cancelled.  None of the providers provide a guarantee that data is safe from loss, while many,  have the ability to terminate an account without notice. All of the service providers can change the terms of service but only Google and Microsoft give an advance notice.

The study also found service providers lacking with respect to European privacy standards, with many allowing for browsing of user content. Tellingly, Google had received a fine in January by the French Data Protection Authority, that stated regarding Google's TOS, "permits itself to combine all the data it collects about its users across all of its services without any legal basis."

To blame or not to blame

Facebook is facing a probe by the UK Information Commissioner's Office, to assess if the experiment conducted in 2012 was a violation of data privacy laws.[16] The FTC asked the court to order T-Mobile USA,  to stop mobile cramming, provide refunds and give up any revenues from the practice. The existing mechanisms of online consent, do not simplify the task of agreeing to multiple documents and services at once, a complexity which manifolds, with the involvement of third parties.

Unsurprisingly, T-Mobile's Legere termed the FTC lawsuit misdirected and blamed the companies providing the text services for the cramming.[17] He felt those providers should be held accountable, despite allegations that T-Mobile's billing practices made it difficult for consumers to detect that they were being charged for unauthorized services and having shared revenues with third-party providers. Interestingly, this is the first action against a wireless carrier for cramming and the FTC has a precedent of going after smaller companies that provide the services.

The FTC charged  T-Mobile USA with deceptive billing practices in putting the crammed charges under a total for 'use charges' and 'premium services' and failure to highlight that portion of the charge was towards third-party charges. Further, the company urged customers to take complaints to vendors and was not forthcoming with refunds. For now, T-Mobile may be able to share the blame, the incident brings to question its accountability, especially as going forward it has entered a pact along with other carriers in USA including Verizon and AT&T, agreeing to stop billing customers for third-party services. Even when practices such as cramming are deemed illegal, it does not necessarily mean that harm has been prevented. Often users bear the burden of claiming refunds and litigation comes at a cost while even after being fined companies could have succeeded in profiting from their actions.

Conclusion

Unfair terms and conditions may arise when service providers include terms that are difficult to understand or vague in their scope. TOS that prevent users from taking legal action, negate liability for service providers actions despite the companies actions that may have a direct bearing on users, are also considered unfair. More importantly, any term that is hidden till after signing the contract, or a term giving the provider the right to change the contract to their benefit including wider rights for service provider wide in comparison to users such as a term that that makes it very difficult for users to end a contract create an imbalance. These issues get further complicated when the companies control and profiting from data are doing so with user generated data provided free to the platform.

In the knowledge economy, web companies play a decisive role as even though they work for profit, the profit is derived out of the knowledge held by individuals and groups. In their function of aggregating human knowledge, they collect and provide opportunities for feedback of the outcomes of individual choices. The significance of consent becomes a critical part of the equation when harnessing individual information. In France, consent is part of the four conditions necessary to be forming a valid contract (article 1108 of the Code Civil).

The cases highlight the complexities that are inherent in the existing mechanisms of online consent. The question of consent has many underlying layers such as reasonable notice and contractual obligations related to consent such as those explored in the case in Canada, which looked at whether clauses of TOS were communicated reasonably to the user, a topic for another blog. For now, we must remember that by creating and organising  social knowledge that further human activity, service providers, serve a powerful function. And as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.


[1] 'FTC Alleges T-Mobile Crammed Bogus Charges onto Customers’ Phone Bills', published 1 July, 2014. See: http://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2014/07/ftc-alleges-t-mobile-crammed-bogus-charges-customers-phone-bills

[2] 'Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks', Adam D. I. Kramera,1, Jamie E. Guilloryb, and Jeffrey T. Hancock, published March 25, 2014. See:http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full.pdf+html?sid=2610b655-db67-453d-bcb6-da4efeebf534

[3] 'U.S. sues T-Mobile USA, alleges bogus charges on phone  bills, Reuters published 1st July, 2014 See: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/01/us-tmobile-ftc-idUSKBN0F656E20140701

[4] 'The Cost of Reading Privacy Policies', Aleecia M. McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor, published I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society 2008 Privacy Year in Review issue. See: http://lorrie.cranor.org/pubs/readingPolicyCost-authorDraft.pdf

[5] 'Reading the Privacy Policies You Encounter in a Year Would Take 76 Work Days', Alexis C. Madrigal, published The Atlantic, March 2012 See: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/03/reading-the-privacy-policies-you-encounter-in-a-year-would-take-76-work-days/253851/

[6] Facebook Legal Terms. See: https://www.facebook.com/legal/terms

[7] 'Facebook's Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline', Kurt Opsahl, Published Electronic Frontier Foundation , April 28, 2010 See:https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/04/facebook-timeline

[8] Facebook Data Use Policy. See: https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/

[9] 'When ‘Liking’ a Brand Online Voids the Right to Sue', Stephanie Strom, published in New York Times on April 16, 2014 See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/17/business/when-liking-a-brand-online-voids-the-right-to-sue.html?ref=business

[10] Explaining our website privacy policy and legal terms, published April 17, 2014 See:http://www.blog.generalmills.com/2014/04/explaining-our-website-privacy-policy-and-legal-terms/#sthash.B5URM3et.dpufhttp://www.blog.generalmills.com/2014/04/explaining-our-website-privacy-policy-and-legal-terms/

[11] General Mills Amends New Legal Policies, Stephanie Strom, published in New York Times  on 1http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/18/business/general-mills-amends-new-legal-policies.html?_r=0

[12] Edward Snowden Statement to European Parliament published March 7, 2014. See: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201403/20140307ATT80674/20140307ATT80674EN.pdf

[13] Progress on EU data protection reform now irreversible following European Parliament vote, published 12 March 201 See: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-14-186_en.htm

[14] European Court of Justice rules Internet Search Engine Operator responsible for Processing Personal Data Published by Third Parties, Jyoti Panday, published on CIS blog on May 14, 2014. See: http://cis-india.org/internet-governance/blog/ecj-rules-internet-search-engine-operator-responsible-for-processing-personal-data-published-by-third-parties

[15] Complaint regarding Apple iCloud’s terms and conditions , published on 13 May 2014 See:http://www.forbrukerradet.no/_attachment/1175090/binary/29927

[16] 'Facebook faces UK probe over emotion study' See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-28102550

[17] Our Reaction to the FTC Lawsuit See: http://newsroom.t-mobile.com/news/our-reaction-to-the-ftc-lawsuit.htm

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