What we did

CommonTerms started in 2010 with an intention to solve the problem of non-accessible online legal texts in a way similar to how Creative Commons made different copyright licenses accessible.

Online legal texts are usually called "Terms of Service", "Terms of Use", "Privacy Policy", "Terms and Conditions" or something similar.

First attempts

We thought that by analyzing existing agreements, we could identify the most common terms, and then create icons to symbolize them.

So we downloaded the Terms of Service from a little more than 20 popular websites of different kinds and we categorized every single term found in those documents.

We would have liked to include Privacy policies and EULAs as well, but (despite generous financial support by the Internet infrastructure foundation) resources were not unlimited, and some great work on privacy policies has already been done by others.

Terms commonly occurring in Terms of Service documents marked with green and blue.
Illustration: Two terms appearing in several agreements have been identified and color marked. Click here if you want a glimpse of the real analysis tool.

Indeed, there were some commonalities between the agreements. We even created a few draft icons:

Early CommonTerms draft
Illustration: Early draft of icons for two common terms.

But in just 22 documents we found more than 450 different terms. Making 450+ icons would not be practical, especially given their often quite abstract nature.

Research

In parallell with our investigations of existing agreements, we also made efforts to find and get in touch with other projects - whether active or abandoned - with similar goals.

Some conclusions from studying what others have done:

  • Many others think that terms and conditions online (especially privacy policies) need to become more accessible.
  • No project has yet proposed a solution which has then been universally adopted.
  • Most projects have been abandoned after a while, probably because the task is non-trivial and they have not had the financial resources needed.
  • Lots of experiences have been made that we can and should learn from.
  • No project has encountered problems which we deem to be too big to solve.

We also recieved confirmation from the Swedish Consumer Agency (Konsumentverket) that many people do file complaints after having agreed to things they did not think they had agreed to, so the problem is real and not just a curiosity.

Furthermore, representatives from Creative commons have been very encouraging, and almost everybody we've discussed the issue with seems to recognize the problem and welcome a solution.

Alpha version

Early 2012, we presented our first draft for a summary format. We called it our alpha version because it was ready to be used, but only after manual adaptation to every new website.

User studies

User Experience students Calle Törnqvist and Hanna Arkestål did a usability study on the CommonTerms alpha version as their Masters' thesis from Stockholm University. They provided users with a number of tasks (such as "join this online community") on mock-up websites implementing different versions of CommonTerms preview, and recorded their every step while performing the tasks. Users were also interviewed about how they experienced the preview. Generally, users did understand and appreciate the previews, which is encouraging. The study also provided some ideas for improvement of the preview presentation.

Live testing

The innovative Austrian startup company Gnowsis was selected for the first live deployment. They tried out a CommonTerms preview button on their Refinder cloud service. (Still live, February 2013) Approximately 10% of visitors clicked the button to see a preview of the Terms & Conditions of Refinder. While far from 100%, we still think of it as a great improvement. Usually, only about 1% of users follow links to see the full Terms & Conditions. For a startup company, getting many people to sign up is of vital importance, so it is very important not to distract potential customers. Conversion is what every marketer wants, so the "Preview terms" button should not be so visually dominant that it makes visitors forget about "Sign up now". Website owners who are upfront with their terms gain trust, but the need for quick signup should also be respected.

Raising awareness

As much as we can, we try to participate in conferences, social media events, hackathons and other places where people are interested in solving the problem. For example, we presented at the European Dialogue on Internet Governance 2012 and the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security in 2012. The idea is to raise awareness about the problem, and thus contribute long-term to a solution.

With the same goal, in 2012, we created the campaign BiggestLie.com where netizens can confess and protest against the biggest lie ("yes I have read and agree..."). The campaign slogan was picked up by TOS;DR as a tagline which, we hope, contributed to the success of their crowdfunding campaign and great media coverage.

Collaboration

In 2012 we co-founded the OpenNotice - a discussion forum for all projects and individuals interested in solving the problem. OpenNotice hosts a mailing list and has telephone conferences about once a month. We are telling each other about our plans, to facilitate interoperability and cooperation. We are also discussing standardization, and possible joint efforts and funding.

Beta version

Based on our usability studies, live alpha testing, and discussions with other projects, we are now (May 2013) presenting a revised beta version of our proposal.

Generator

Part of the work with a beta version was to make it possible for anybody to easily create their own CommonTerms preview by filling out a form. A first version of this tool is now available.

Conclusions

Our proposal explores some aspects of the five kinds of efforts needed to overcome the fine print obstacle.

The road ahead

Please see our roadmap!