Home Why Facebook’s User Agreement is Still Problematic

Why Facebook’s User Agreement is Still Problematic

Watching Mark Zuckerberg try to explain Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal was a powerful wake-up call for many Americans that led to several privacy changes by Facebook and other platforms. Facebook updated its terms of service for the first time in years, attempting to use simple language that anyone could understand.

But did a few updates in terminology really help the public understand Facebook’s data collection policies? Maybe, but even the updated legal agreement isn’t written for the youngest users (13-year-olds).

Very few people actually scroll through the fine print before checking off the “I agree” box.

Back in 2012, Siegel+Gale’s survey results revealed how confusing legal agreements could be. It found that people could answer only 40% of the questions about an agreement they had time to study. In 2017, two researchers watched as hundreds of college students agreed to give a fictitious social media platform their firstborn children (a clause in paragraph 2.3.1). Complex terms of service are more likely to be dodged than decoded. So what can be done?

Why User Agreements are Hard to Understand

Mark Zuckerberg realizes that Facebook hasn’t fully explained its policies to a modern audience. Currently, its terms of service say, “We use the data we have — for example, about the connections you make, the choices and settings you select, and what you share and do on and off our products — to personalize your experience.”

What the agreement really means: “We will collect your personal information on and off the platform and give it to advertisers who market ads specifically for you.” Unfortunately, the users are usually the last to understand this.

Major consumer platforms have entire teams that manage these legal agreements, which means lawyers are still writing them. Lawyers aren’t trained to make documents accessible to the public; their job is to protect the company from being sued or losing millions of dollars in legal fines or settlements. They care about precision, not readability.

When accuracy is the only guiding light, fine prints are often long, confusing, and incredibly dull.

Pair this with decreased average attention spans, and you’ve discovered why no one reads legal agreements. Microsoft found that attention spans are as short as eight seconds, which is barely enough time to skim the text, let alone read it. And this problem won’t improve anytime soon: Our attention spans are dropping by 88% each year, according to Jampp’s research.

What Businesses Should Care About

A Deloitte survey found that 91% of people consent to legal agreements without reading them. This number jumps to 97% for those between the ages of 18 and 34. Getting users to not only understand the content but read it in the first place is a lofty goal, but it can be done.

Businesses work relentlessly to make sure consumers understand their products, no matter how complex. Marketing teams treat their audiences like intelligent humans who are capable of learning. Surely companies can help users understand what they’re signing up for. The only reason not to work toward such a goal would be rooted in a desire to collect data without regard for consumer interests. In other words: greed.

Entire teams are devoted to developing user agreements, so why not have them track key performance indicators as other consumer-facing departments do? 

Businesses could start testing whether consumers read their agreements. For example, Facebook could make users answer a few questions to prove they read and understood the user agreement before clicking accept.

But realistically, no brand wants to put roadblocks up that make accessing their services difficult for consumers (and few consumers would appreciate the legalese test in the middle of their leisure time). Businesses must find a middle ground — one that doesn’t include pop quizzes.

How to Make User Agreements More User-Friendly

Ethical businesses that want to demonstrate transparency to consumers and build trust should start with their user agreements. Here’s how you can help:

  • · Translate your terms of service.

    Put the legalese in one column and more straightforward explanations in another. It’ll be easier for users to understand when everything is side by side. Here’s an example.

  • · Implement AI software.

    With AI, you can measure and track KPIs to adjust your language and enhance engagement. App developers and user experience experts love AI because it pinpoints problems and helps create solutions.

  • · Describe legal updates for users.

    Don’t just notify them you updated it — explain what you did. If you’re updating your privacy policy, send users a quick paragraph detailing what’s being altered.

People should have every right to adjust where and how they use platforms and services.

To avoid consumer confusion and prevent negative assumptions about your business, don’t let the public learn about your data collection methods from a third party. Be proactive, demonstrate transparency, and create those user-friendly legal agreements.

Image Credit: Kaitlyn Baker; Unsplash

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

May Habib
Co-Founder and CEO of Writer.com

May Habib is co-founder and CEO of Writer.com, a content intelligence platform that helps everyone at a company write with the same style, terminology, and brand voice.

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