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10 Tips About How To Read Terms Of Use And Privacy Policies

We all have encountered user agreements for our computers, tablets, smart phones, Internet service provider, e-mail provider, and many other products and services. Recently, a friend asked:

"... it is still troubling to think of all my personal information sitting in some database somewhere waiting to be harvested by some hackers or business... But what's a person to do? I can't live without a credit/debit card or mortgage or car loan or health insurance and I buy online and use email. And... who reads the user agreements in detail and understands all the legal ramifications and potential for abuse legal or not?"

Good concerns and questions. I am not an attorney, so this blog post is not legal advice. It includes my opinions, and what I've learned through 30+ years of business experience. If you want legal advice, stop reading and consult an attorney.

Now, what I've learned.

Like most things in life, learning how to read companies policies (e.g., Terms of Usage, Privacy Policy) and employers’ policies (e.g., Non-Disclosure, Social Media Usage) is an acquired skill. It takes time. Nobody is born knowing how to read a policy.

When you were born, you didn’t know how to eat, read, write, ride a bicycle, nor swim. You acquired those skills over time... and ideally, became more skilled after repeated usage. And, you had help learning these skills.

The topics I look for in a privacy policy:

  • What data about me they collect
  • What data about my device they collect
  • How long they retain data collected
  • Who they share collected data with

More often than not, companies never disclose the precise names of other companies they share data with. You’ll see general terms like: vendors, marketing partners, and other service providers. That can mean anybody.

The topics I look for in a terms of use policy:

  • Permitted and dis-allowed uses
  • For a disagreement, whether I have the right to sue or am bound by arbitration
  • The state any lawsuits or arbitration claims must be filed in
  • The fees and costs that apply for a lawsuit (or arbitration)

It is important to understand arbitration. This contractual clause means that for an unresolved problem or dispute, the consumer must use the arbitration process specified in the policy. It also means the loss of three rights: to sue, to participate in a class-action lawsuit, and to benefit from mediation. Bankrate explained:

"This week, the CFPB released new research showing that banks' practice of forcing customers into binding arbitration has a wide range of downsides for consumers... The exhaustive 700+ page CFPB report shows that arbitration clauses have a broad range of negative consequences for consumers. They discourage individual consumers from pursuing claims. The CFPB found that the number of arbitrations filed by individual consumers was much lower than one would expect given the number federal lawsuits filed by those who still have that option... They squelch legitimate class-action lawsuits. Arbitration clauses generally prevent customers from joining together in class-action lawsuits... They reduce consumer protections. The way that many consumer protection laws are enforced is through civil litigation. By blocking civil suits brought by customers, financial institutions effectively give themselves an end-around against these protections... They confuse consumers. In surveys conducted by the CFPB for the report, relatively few customers understood what arbitration was, whether they were subject to it and how it works in practice... They don't lead to lower prices. The big selling point for arbitration has always been that reducing legal costs by blocking customer lawsuits would result in lower prices for consumers. But that hasn't been the case, according to the report..."

The National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) explained:

"One of the alleged benefits of arbitration is that it costs less than litigation, but frequently this is not true for consumers and employees. Forced arbitration frequently costs more than taking a case to court and can cost thousands of dollars. Individuals often have to pay a large fee simply to initiate the arbitration process. If they are able to get an in-person hearing, individuals sometimes have to travel thousands of miles on their own dime to attend the arbitration. In the end, the loser (usually the individual) often pays the company’s legal fees."

The Public Citizen website lists the banks, retail stores, entertainment, online shopping, telecommunications, consumer electronics, software, nursing homes, and health care companies that include binding arbitration clauses in their contracts with customers. If this bothers you (and I hope that it does), you can take action at the NACA website.

We all use software on  our computing devices. That software has policies, too. Sometimes, they are called ‘license agreements.” Whatever they are called, I look for the same issues as noted above.

If you are new to reading policies, the ten tips I suggest:

  1. Don't try to read the whole document at once. Pick one topic to read today
  2. Return to the document later, or another day, to read about another topic
  3. Use the outline or table of contents in the document to find a topic. Well-written online policies contain a table of contents with clickable links to topics
  4. Repeat steps #1 through #3 until you feel that you fully understand the document
  5. If you get stuck, discuss the topic with somebody you know and trust who already uses the product, service, or mobile app
  6. Check reputable sites for clues. Product, service, and company reviews are good sources for clues about topics. I have always had success with Consumer Reports for product and service reviews, plus the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for company reviews.
  7. Be patient. Your skill at reading policies will improve. You will get better.
  8. If the mobile app, website, or online service lacks a privacy policy, assume the worst and shop elsewhere. The company probably collects, saves, and shares everything; and it may be highly disorganized since it failed to provide policies. Some State Attorneys have sued companies for failing to provide policies for mobile apps.
  9. Read all updates the company sends via e-mail, text, postal mail, or with your monthly bill. Well-written updates usually provide a list of what's changed in the revised policy
  10. If the item is a major expense (e.g., real estate, a home or condo, business, etc.), get the advice of an attorney

Many employers now have social media policies. These documents specify what you can or can’t say about your employer (and its customers or clients) on social networking sites. The document also outlines the consequences if you violate the policy (e.g., you get fired, suspended, fined, etc.). You may have heard about the Major League Baseball player benched for violating his team's social media policy. It happens. If you are interviewing, ask about their policy.

Last, some physicians require patients to sign a, “Mutual Agreement to Maintain Privacy” document. Don’t be fooled by the policy name. It is misleading. The document usually requires the patient to give up the right to mention that physician on any social networking sites.

Consider that policy a fancy, online muzzle. When I encounter a physician with such a a policy, I take my business elsewhere.

In general... if you don't read policies and later get burned (e.g., lose money, lose your data or photographs, lose your job), then you have nobody to blame but yourself.


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