Wait, you didn’t want to clean the toilets? Should have read the terms!

Roll up your sleeves and grab the brushes: you’re now on bathroom duty at the next county festival. Yes, you voluntarily agreed to 1,000 hours of community service when you clicked your approval of WiFi provider Purple’s terms of service (TOS).

What? You failed to read the fine print? You just swooped to the end and clicked OK? You aren’t alone. Purple has a cadre of 22,000 who willingly agreed to perform community service in return for their access to Purple’s free WiFi.

Purple added a “Community Service Clause” to their terms of service. The clause gave Purple discretion to assign community duty to the user, which included:

  • Cleansing local parks of animal waste
  • Providing hugs to stray cats and dogs
  • Manually relieving sewer blockages
  • Cleaning portable lavatories at local festivals and events
  • Painting snail shells to brighten up their existence
  • Scraping chewing gum off the streets

Purple’s intent was to highlight to all of us to read the TOS. Purple’s CEO commented:

WiFi users need to read terms when they sign up to access a network. What are they agreeing to, how much data are they sharing, and what license are they giving to providers? Our experiment shows it’s all too easy to tick a box and consent to something unfair.

So how many individuals noticed the “Community Service Clause” in Purple’s TOS?

One user, yes just one of the 22,000+ who agreed to the enhanced TOS during the two-week period of the test, disagreed with the TOS.

Those with longer memories may remember Game Station’s 2010 April Fool’s Day adjustment to their TOS and order form. Users could opt out (and receive a £5 voucher) or click through and agree to sell their immortal soul. It turned out that 88% of users were willing to give up their immortal souls.

In a 2016 paper authored by Jonathan Obar and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsh, The biggest lie on the internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services, showed exactly what Purple’s two-week test showed: that the vast majority of individuals – 98% – will miss the “gotcha clauses”.

That’s because users fail to read the TOS page.  The researchers used a TOS of more than 4,300 words, which would take about 15 minutes to read properly. The median read time for the 543 university students? A blazing speed read of 51 seconds.

And yes, the content contained several items which the average user would balk at allowing. These included:

  • Provide your first-born child as payment
  • Your social network content will be shared with your employer
  • Your social network content will be shared with the NSA

Purple’s fun and the researchers findings both serve to drive home an important point.

Read what you sign!

Yes, you really do need to mine those TOS or Privacy policies for those hidden gems of “consent” buried within mind-numbing text if you don’t want to end up selling your soul.