Congress is tired of tech firms bamboozling consumers with lengthy and confusing terms of service (ToS) and three members have a plan: the Terms-of-service Labeling, Design and Readability (TLDR) Act, which has bipartisan support and could force tech companies to simplify ToS.
The bill is sponsored by Congresswoman Lori Trahan (D-MA), Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), giving it a strong chance of success in the gridlocked system that is the American legislature.
“For far too long, blanket [ToS] agreements have forced consumers to either ‘agree’ to all of a company’s conditions or lose access to a website or app entirely. No negotiation, no alternative, and no real choice,” said Congresswoman Trahan, a member of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce.
Too long, never read
“To further slant the decision in their favor, many companies design unnecessarily long and complicated contracts, knowing that users don’t have the bandwidth to read lengthy legal documents when they’re simply trying to message a loved one or make a quick purchase," Trahan says. "The potential for abuse is obvious, and some bad actors have chosen to exploit these agreements to expand their control over users’ personal data and shield themselves from liability."
Almost no one reads ToS and companies know this; it's one of the reasons that the terms are presented in dense text with complicated language. Admission into the services is always contingent on agreeing to the rules, which can often mean signing away your data rights without realising, with little in return.
The TLDR Act is part of a broader shift towards reigning in tech companies, which have gained vast over the past decade and especially during the pandemic. Congress has held a variety of hearings – some productive, others clearly not – and the recent revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen have added fuel to the fire.
Of course, the TLDR Act still has some way to go and bipartisan support only counts for so much. Congress is deadlocked over everything, big and small (excluding military funding), and the changes of the Act being passed are difficult to assess.
Still, though, it's encouraging to see a bipartisan group of Congresspeople tackle a problem that, knowingly or unknowingly, affects everything using the internet.
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Max Slater-Robins has been writing about technology for nearly a decade at various outlets, covering the rise of the technology giants, trends in enterprise and SaaS companies, and much more besides. Originally from Suffolk, he currently lives in London and likes a good night out and walks in the countryside.