Morals, Opinions

Does Anyone Really Read The Terms of Service?

Let’s face it, no one wants or has time to read all the terms of service when they install some software or go to a website.

Screenshot from TransUnion: I accept & Continue to Step 3
https://www.termsfeed.com/blog/examples-click-accept/

Most people are just going to click I agree and move on with their lives. Thankfully the courts, at least in the US, agree with you. Terms of Service like that aren’t good enough.

From my understanding as a non-attorney, you need to include a affirmative step in which the user clearly ignored, I mean read, the terms of service. This prompt is too small and there is no extra step to agree, more of a “next”.

This is much stronger legally

Amazon AWS I Agree To Customer Agreement Checkbox Checked

But still, enough about the legality, you’re still going to skip it most likely. It’s long, you’re not a lawyer, and it’s good enough for most people so why bother.

I used to be guilty of this myself but nowadays I read the damn things. I got screwed over by Turo, a terrible rental car agency that legally isn’t quite a rental car agency from my understanding. Don’t bother with them, please.

Informed Consent

Back on track. Websites and companies are becoming worse and worse because no one checks up them. We accept any terms of service as a form of “informed consent” rather than negotiating. After all, consumers aren’t lawyers and increasingly everyone needs a lawyer or to at least understand some basic legalese.

Enter: ToS;DR (Terms of Service; Didn’t Read)

Logo

A few weeks ago I was going planning to do a write up where I create a basic automated terms of service parser that shows you the key points. But thankfully someone already did this and is far better fleshed out than any tutorial I would have made

Check it out here https://tosdr.org/

You can download a browser add-on and all their code is open source. And better yet, a more restrictive form of open source in which you can’t just take their code and sell it but you have to keep your code open source from my understanding. See the license for the browser extension here

https://github.com/tosdr/browser-extensions/blob/master/LICENSE

BTW: I really love how Github shows software licenses. It’s relatively clear and I hope ToS;DR can get there with their styling.

But yea, ToS;DR is pretty cool. Check out their writeup on Facebook

And check out Wikipedia, much better. https://tosdr.org/en/service/175

What about Pinterest? They force you into binding arbitration for disputes. Why aren’t the courts good enough? Equifax got off great even though they were grossly negligent about losing millions of SSN’s

Long Term Degradation of the Internet

Terms of Service are clearly a problem because they aren’t negotiated. If you don’t like Pinterest you can’t exactly go over to Pinterest 2 and have a similar experience. These technology companies capitalize on their network effects, aka having a large user base. Over time they make things worse and keep you captive to their network.

I hope even the most libertarian people out there would agree with me that it’s impossible for there to be sufficient competition on the internet. With the biggest services, that frankly are good by most definitions, there is only room for a few players: Facebook, TikTok, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc. But there are all slightly different in what they offer and can’t really be compared. People use their accounts separately across these channels. And each platform thrives on the number of users existing on them.

There is simply not enough room for someone to create Pinterest 2 and decide to be slightly more privacy focused. It would never work without having a different enough product like Instagram or Twitter are. It’s winner take all in the niche until the niche no longer becomes important. Remember Myspace? Facebook took all that marketshare and now it’s hard to leave them because people use that for event planning and staying in touch.

And there is not enough incentive for a new service to maintain a user friendly terms of service either. It works much better and makes more money if they degrade quality over time after building the moat. So impenetrable that perjury is OK. Money makes the world go round and you can just pay people to help keep the moat. Our geriatric senators don’t help either.

You might argue, well don’t use XYZ if you don’t like it. They are free to do what they want. Well, I’d argue the cost of requiring everyone to be a lawyer or have one on retainer outweighs the benefits of enhancing consumer protections. Does Pinterest really need that clause? Like I said, Equifax got off great and deals with much more secure data. Pinterest has the clause because they can get away with it. There’s no market mechanism keeping them in check.

Planned Obsolescence and Erosion of Brand Quality

Niman Ranch featured prominently on Perdue Farms website

This is the same issue with continued market dynamics degrading society over time. Have a great business where you pay employees well and still make a good living? Someone else can always swoop in, pay employees less, and beat you on price. What should you do in this situation? Hope your customers care enough about your employees? That’s a tall order because just like terms of service, people don’t care and don’t always have time to care.

Did you check that the lettuce you bought wasn’t harvested by undocumented farm workers that get pushed around by their employers? What about the blueberries? Or your silverware was made responsibly? Probably not, so as a business owner how do you compete with someone who runs a more efficient factory? You can’t. Should everyone ask to meet the farmer? before buying something? That would take far too much time and maybe you don’t care or can’t care because you’d rather buy it cheaper.

That last example is pretty attackable. Standards of living have really increased lately and the benefit of that may outweigh all the injustices.

But what about what’s happening with appliances. Or even my beloved Einstein Bagels? A general formula to make money on a business you buy is to improve it operationally and then sell it. I.e. improve it’s core operation whether that’s making washing machines or bagels. You go ahead and buy a bagel company with a great brand. And then each year you make the bagels slightly smaller. Or you use a quicker rise with the dough. Customers don’t care enough and the brand of Einstein Bagels outweighs their private equity degradation. That’s how most of our food. Read about Tyson’s brand “Hillshire Farm® brand“. You’ll notice that no where do they say they actually maintain the Hillshire Farm. It’s always Hillshire Farm® brand when referred to in the present. If you’re a farmer today starting your own brand good luck because it’s an uphill battle to convince customers that Hillshire Farm isn’t a real farm but a brand. And by the way, they’ll be far cheaper than you. That’s what happened to Bill Niman.

Niman Ranch

Look what’s happened with Niman Ranch, the founder of the company is no longer a part of it. What in the actual fuck. His name is Bill Niman and he can’t control Niman Ranch anymore. Natural Food Holdings made them profitable by cutting quality but the brand remained with connotation of quality. I bet Bill signed an agreement not to bad mouth them ever too. What should he have done though? It was tough to make the leap to being a big company and maybe it was a bad business, although it would be easier if “Hillshire Farm® brand” wasn’t allowed to call themselves a farm, since they aren’t.

Other people valued Niman Ranch more because they knew how much they could increase profits through quality cuts. And now it fills a market void of quality, ethical meats when it actually isn’t. That’s why Bill Niman started BN Ranch. Probably isn’t allowed to even use Niman as a name anymore. Hopefully he succeeds.

And don’t get me started on the scam that is nutrition facts. Not all food is created equally and that standardization of nutrition densities through nutrition facts masks it. Consumers aren’t botanists and don’t realize that they are being forced to not value nutrient density.

Appliances

With appliances it’s much better to make a product that breaks after a reasonable amount of time. Build your network of distribution and manufacturing, then tweak how long it needs to last to be acceptable. In this way we are booking more “GDP”, the god metric of US economist, yet we supply an inefficient, a fridge that breaks. Why not make the fridge last 20 years. Or the car for that matter?

The price to create the unit and sale price might be similar but the if you can get people to buy 3 fridges over that time you get 3x profit. Why not! Simply put, people don’t care because it’s too hard to care. Are you expert enough in fridge manufacture to know it uses cruddy parts? And I can’t blame people. It’s also inefficient to have everyone caring on this. But we shouldn’t encourage these companies by obsessing over GDP, the sum of products created, and perhaps a waste fine is in order for egregious planned obsolescence. Like extremely egregious. That’s all. Checks and balances are good.

The issue with all these things is similar to technology companies. The hard part is breaking through to have a product, customers, and distribution. Once you have those things you can enforce your moat and make it hard for new companies to enter the market. You just have to be ruthless and you’ll get the money and oftentimes the respect too. Those two are hand-in-hand for the most part.

What Should We Do About It

Frankly, I don’t know. It’s a tough problem. You can’t solve everything and some of my examples are pretty hard to root out without giving government too much power to abuse and make things even worse. To me, the best solution is to have some checks and balances to stop this behavior. Much like the CFPB, which is basically the super agency to help you if a bank or credit card company screws you over, I think an organization that stopped egregious issues like planned obsolescence would be great. When a company could pay the same for 2 products and opts to make the flimsier product. Maybe that tax or penalty is indirect and realized as a waste fee I don’t know. Maybe some restrictions on how companies display and hide behind brands. Oftentimes the competitor products are all the same few companies and stop natural competitors like Bill Niman from making as much headway as he could.

Companies Have More Rights than People

And maybe if we stopped companies from having more rights than people that would be great too. After all why is it so much easier for a company to get dual citizenship than a person? They can be citizens virtually anywhere! At the same time! This freedom of movement gives so much power to companies over people. Governments are generally inept and disorganized and then you get these companies like Amazon getting every mayor in a bidding war of tax incentives. It’s insane. But jobs give votes.

You can’t exactly put a company in jail either so they will always have more rights in the corporate personhood state we have in the USA. If a company fucks up the corporate veil is generally pretty strong too. Much stronger than if you fuck up with something. Hell robbery is OK just pay it back without penalty or any admission of guilt but god forbid if a poor person attempts to steal $20 dollars. Let’s go argue about the merits of that for months and oh by the way he was killed for his presumed guilt too. No way this could have happened to a company. Killed in an hour over a 20? There would at least be a hearing and plenty of time to prepare a defense. Clearly this imbalance between persons and corporations exists. And why do we look at a company’s profits as a justification for fines? No such luxury is afforded to poor people in the court systems. Have fun with bail. (Research and vote for your judges by the way).

There is no accountability with companies. Also the shareholders often don’t use their shares to vote. While it’s not representative of the population, voting would be better than what we have today. Maybe I’ll make an index fund that does that efficiently so we can all stop whining about having no representation in companies and CEO pay ever inflating. After all it’s cheaper to use an index fund and let them vote your shares. As an aside, ethical investing is great and all but bad companies are going to exist. Why not invest in them too and actually use your voting power to make them better instead of investing just in the “good companies”.

Anyways back on track

We’re headed towards a future of galaxy spanning corporations that will increasingly wield more and more control over society without any representation by the public. And little regard for any form of ethics. Getting permission to leave Earth will likely be tough in the future once otherworldly settlements are self-sufficient. I just hope we care enough before automation and unadulterated capitalism enhance inequality to a tipping point.

Markets are good, let’s use them better and vote/care more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.