Students Agree to Give Up First Born Child to Join Social Network

by Jeff Sovern

If I had known about this study a few days ago, I would have added it to my list for John Oliver. The study is Jonathan A. Obar & Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services (2016). The authors administered an experiment to 543 undergrads in a communications class.  The students were offered a chance to sign up for a new social network and were given the opportunity to read the Terms of Service and privacy policy. The following appeared in the TOS:

[A]ll users of this site agree to immediately assign their first-born child to [the social network].  If the user does not yet have children, this agreement will be enforceable until the year 2050.  All individuals assigned to [the social network] automatically become the property of [the social network].  No exceptions.

Judging by the statistics reported in the article, it appears likely that few of the students read the clause.  But some clearly did, because nine students (1.7%) expressed concerns about the clause. Nevertheless, every single one of the students signed up, including the nine who had reservations about the term. Evidently college students really like their social networks.

Here's the authors' abstract:

This paper addresses ‘the biggest lie on the internet’ with an empirical investigation of privacy policy (PP) and terms of service (TOS) policy reading behavior. An experimental survey (N=543) assessed the extent to which individuals ignore PP and TOS when joining a fictitious social networking site, NameDrop. Results reveal 74% skipped PP, selecting ‘quick join.’ For readers, average PP reading time was 73 seconds, and average TOS reading time was 51 seconds. Based on average adult reading speed (250-280 words per minute), PP should have taken 30 minutes to read, TOS 16 minutes. A regression analysis revealed information overload as a significant negative predictor of reading TOS upon signup, when TOS changes, and when PP changes. Qualitative findings further suggest that participants view policies as nuisance, ignoring them to pursue the ends of digital production, without being inhibited by the means. Implications were revealed as 98% missed NameDrop TOS ‘gotcha clauses’ about data sharing with the NSA and employers, and about providing a first-born child as payment for SNS access.

0 thoughts on “Students Agree to Give Up First Born Child to Join Social Network

  1. Deborah S. Bosley, Ph.D. says:

    Jeff, as a plain language expert (and consumer, of course), I particularly appreciate your two articles on the needless complexity of a multitude of disclosures and agreements that the public is expected to read. Here’s the heart of the problem, IMHO: the public has been trained not to read them because they are long, convoluted, and (forgive me) drafted by attorneys who 1) may not be good writers, 2) use far too much legal jargon, 3) do not know that disclosures can be in plain language and legal at the same time, 4) protect their “turf” by adhering to legal writing standards that make it impossible for the public to understand, and 5) rely on what’s worked in the past. What the writers of these disclosures fail to realize is that “trust” is an enormous component of why people do business with companies and that that trust is a direct result of language that is clear and understandable. I believe (and work with this in mind) that people have a right to understand the information that affects their lives. If only the attorneys who draft them, and the companies that release them, understood and respected this goal themselves. Deborah S. Bosley, Ph.D.

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