Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 2.45.21 AMVeronica Donoso and Ellen Wauters, of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Law and ICT (ICRI) share a summary of some of their recommendations for improving terms of service on social networking sites from their recently published report.  You can read the full report on the EMSOC website.

Citizens need to know what their rights and obligations on social media platforms are and this can only be achieved if the laws and rules governing these services reflect users’ and “consumers’” needs, expectations, and values. This means that user-centric, dynamic and contextual ways of providing legal and policy-related information to users are required of companies.

Terms of Use or TOUs are the traditional way of providing consumers with information so that they can make “informed” decisions regarding a particular product or service. Research, however, shows that even when supplied with the appropriate information most users are still unable to assess and process legal information such as contracts or terms of service correctly. This is partly because the language used in these texts (it is often legalese) is complex, but also because of users’ cognitive and contextual constraints (e.g. lack of time or motivation). The fact that Terms of Use on social networking services (SNSs) are usually not read nor fully understood by users is, therefore, not surprising. What is new, however, are the challenges that the very nature of social media pose to transparency:

  • SNS users are a heterogeneous audience comprising all layers of society from very young children to the elderly. Conversely, Terms of Use are drafted with a single, standard user in mind making them meaningless for a wide majority of the SNS population.
  • Terms of Use are intended for users, but often seem to be drafted for lawyers. In order to enhance users’ trust, but also to help users make informed decisions, more user-friendly texts and formats are needed.
  • Information about the rules governing SNSs are usually provided when the user registers for the service and they are often made available through links at the bottom of pages or almost hidden in the navigation. It seems timely to start exploring more effective ways of presenting such information. For instance, what about providing intellectual property rights information at the right place and the right time i.e. when it is really relevant to users?  Why not remind a user about copyright issues when uploading a photo or a video which could infringe the copyright law? Of course, one could argue that contextual features of this sort may hinder the natural interaction flow of users with social media sites or Apps. Finding the right balance between information provision and a seamless social media user experience is crucial.
  • Incorporating visual techniques that can help minimize legalese requires not only a different mindset from lawyers and SNS CEOs, but it also requires a considerable effort from companies. Nowadays, most Terms of Use are drafted uniformly following accepted standards, which saves time and money. Creating strong incentives for SNS providers to invest in user-friendly Terms of Use which make sense to their community is a must.

Citizens have to know what their rights and obligations on social media platforms are and this can only be achieved through higher standards set by the laws and rules governing these services.  One avenue worth exploring is “smart disclosure”, using data to provide users with personalized information as well as visualisation and information design.  Finally, more research is needed to explore the most meaningful ways to put these concepts into practice and to explore ethical and legal implications for providers as well as for users.

This article gives the views of the authors, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, the London School of Economics, or any other entity.