A (Fake, But Still) Terms-of-Service Contract Asked People to Give Up Their Firstborn

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It is a tired observation, the fact that no one reads any terms-of-service agreements. “They might be asking you to sign away your firstborn child and nobody would notice!” is a joke a timid comedian might try at an open-mic night, and no one would laugh. And yet this turns out to be not terribly far from the truth, according to research conducted by Jonathan Obar of York University.

Reporting for Morning Edition, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam gives the highlights of the study, which Obar did in collaboration with Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch at the University of Connecticut. The researchers made up a social networking site called it Name Drop (which, kudos — that’s better than the names of many real apps), and asked their study participants to sign up for it. Before they could, though, they’d have to agree to the site’s terms and services. Hidden within this agreement document were two strange requests: Is it cool if we share all your information with the NSA? Oh, also, we’re going to go ahead and take your firstborn child as a form of payment, okay?

Most people — 98 percent — didn’t even notice the firstborn clause, and just one person out of the 500 study volunteers objected to the NSA policy. It could be, maybe, that people were not paying terribly close attention to the terms-and-services agreement because they suspected the networking site was a fake. But, really, these findings just serve to underline the thing we already suspected: Seriously, no one reads these things. “So people are signing these agreements without reading them because they say ‘I have nothing to hide,’” Vedantam says, but “maybe your grocery store is selling information about your food purchases to your insurance company, which then uses it to make judgments about your health risk.” Who would ever know?

Terms of Service Asked People to Give Up Their Firstborn