UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Terms and Conditions for Online Services

Posted by Brian Kelly on 27 April 2012

As described in the post on Have You Got Your Free Google Drive, Skydrive & Dropbox Accounts? the announcement of the release of Google Drive generated much discussion, a fair amount of which was due to misinformation about Google’s alleged claims of ownership for content uploaded to Google Drive. However although statements that “Google claim ownership of content uploaded to their service” are clearly wrong, concerns that the terms and conditions can give service providers control over your content and your use of the service in ways you do no approve of do have some validity.

In order to gain a better understanding of possible concerns, but also the reasons why service providers may use such clauses, I have documented some of the terms and conditions of services I use in the table below.

No.  Terms and Conditions
1 Statement: We may update these Terms (including our Privacy Statement) from time to time. Changes will have immediate effect from the date of posting on this Site and you should therefore review these Terms regularly. Your continued use of this Site after changes have been made will be taken to indicate that you accept that you are bound by the updated Terms.How they will justify the statement: We may need to change the terms and conditions in light of changing circumstances.

What they could mean: Once we’ve got you hooked, we’ll claim your first born!

2 Statement: [We] reserve the right to amend the Acceptable Use Policy at any time without notice. If the policy is amended then all list owners will be informed and they may distribute the information to list members.How they will justify the statement: We may need to change the terms and conditions in light of changing circumstances.

What they could mean: Once we’ve got you hooked, we’ll claim your first born – but unlike the other service, we’ll tell you about it.

3 Statement: Unacceptable use: … Creation or transmission of material such that this infringes the copyright of another person.How they will justify the statement: We want to ensure that we aren’t sued for copyright infringement.

What they could mean: If we don’t like what you’re doing we can use copyright clause to get rid of you.

4 Statement: You must not use … computing services for the creation, collection, storage, downloading or displaying of any offensive, obscene, indecent or menacing images, data or material capable of being resolved into such.How they will justify the statement: This is self-evident.

What they could mean: Our lawyers tell us we can use the “material capable of being resolved into such” to scare people.

What are your thoughts on these terms and conditions?

I should add that a Verge article which asks Is Google Drive worse for privacy than iCloud, Skydrive, and Dropbox? carried out a more details comparison of the terms and conditions for Google Drive, Skydrive, Dropbox and iCloud services and concludes:

in order to run a massive online service that handles tons of user data, you need a lot of permissions from those users. Those permissions are fairly standardized, since the underlying copyright law itself is static — companies like Microsoft and Google need permission to copy and distribute your content to servers around the world to make services like Drive and SkyDrive work well. There’s also a tension between friendly language and legal precision — drawing in sharp lines often requires aggressive wording, while there’s real comfort in vagaries.

In the end, though, the actual wording of these documents doesn’t reveal much — they all set out to do the same thing, and they all accomplish their goals. What’s most important is how much trust you’re willing to give companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Dropbox as more and more of your data moves to the cloud. Contracts are meaningful and important, but even the most noble promises can easily be broken. It’s actions and history that have consequences, and companies that deal with user data on the web need to start building a history of squeaky-clean behavior before any of us can feel totally comfortable living in the cloud.

I suspect the recent flurry of tweets about the Google Drive terms and conditions wasn’t really about the terms and conditions themselves (which apply to all Google services) but were really a statement from people who don’t trust Google.

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