In Common this week: Terms of Service

Welcome back folks,

A recent college study was highlighted in The Guardian lately that confirms something we all know anecdotally: few people read terms of service. In the experiment with over five hundred college students, only a quarter “looked” at the terms of service for a fictitious service. Of course, as the article points out, looking is not the same as reading since only a fraction of those that read caught the fact that participants were actually signing away their first born child.

Terms of service can be dicey. They can be long and they can be legalistic meaning that even those who take the time to read them may not understand what they say. This is especially concerning in a city like New York where even elections instructions and signs are printed in more than seven languages. Terms of Services certainly aren’t written to be as accessible as elections instructions and we’ve all been in long lines and maybe even made mistakes on ballots ourselves. Yet we’re signing away our rights often thanks to these agreements.

I think about this especially because I work on digital tools and because I teach with digital tools. I signed up for Twitter initially because of a class requirement. “Join in the lively academic discussion!” the instructor said, with only a few comments on being aware that most of the information in Twitter is public. But we didn’t discuss the Terms of Service and what we would be giving away as our ticket into this discussion.

Now, I’m hardly a luddite or a privacy maven. This blog is proof of that, to some degree. I’m also, as I’ve written in other posts, a Social Media Fellow at the GC. I’m very aware of the value of digital tools, of social media, and of the intellectual discussion that can and does go on over many, many digital platforms.

But what I want to do this week is to take a look at Terms of Service of the Commons. Since I consider one of the reasons for this blog to be active promotion of the remarkable ways people at the GC are using the Commons and thus crafting arguments about why you might want to use the Commons, it’s still important to consider what the folks behind the Commons are doing with your data and what they can do.

Jumping in

The terms of service for the Commons can be found through the “About” tab on the site (you can’t find it from the backend when you’re in the WordPress dashboard).

At almost two thousand words, the Commons’ Terms of Service (TOS) isn’t a quick read, but it is, notably, a less legalistic document than, say, the TOS for a tool that many people use daily — their Gmail account (the link is just to the Google privacy policy since the Gmail TOS is broken into several pages; the Privacy policy is the longest). It’s a sign, I like to think, that the folks behind the Commons what the students who use it to know what they’re getting into.

Notably the posting to Commons (no matter the setting, this includes “private” or “admin only”), gives CUNY (not just the Commons) “a nonexclusive, royalty free, perpetual, and worldwide license to use the Content on the Site. . .including but not limited to, the right to copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, edit, translate, and reformat the Content, and/or to incorporate it into a collective work” At first, it seems pretty scary, right? Do I really want my under-construction site to suddenly be picked up and plastered all over CUNY sites?

In reality, that’s unlikely to happen. As a Social Media Fellow, I’m particularly careful not to tweet out or link to Commons work unless I receive permission from the author or the information is clearly ready for public consumption: think of articles people have posted or content from organizations.

The last part of the sentence is related to the whole idea behind having a “commons” — a space that is not really owned by anyone but free for all to use. It’s a metaphorical relationship though, also an ethical one, that doesn’t always fit in with a University-funded project. Still, especially with the references to remixing and collaborative projects, is meant to gesture towards Creative Commons licenses (which have their own roots in academic ideas freedom of expression).

Importantly though, the Commons TOS continues though: that license remains until “you remove or delete [your content].”

That might seem like a common-sense addition. Surely, if you delete something, no one has access to it. But the digital world isn’t like that. Cached versions remain, backups, etc. Facebook and Google often have access to you data long after you deactivate your account unless you specifically request they delete them and even then, sometimes, on some platforms, you still do not have a guarantee as to your data.

Sometimes the right to delete your data is as important as the right to post data.

A Final Note

The TOS are too long to really break down in one blog post, but my point, really, is to encourage you to read them. The second to last section of the Commons TOS reminds you as well:

“We reserve the right to change, at any time, at our sole discretion, these Terms.  You are responsible for regularly reviewing these Terms.  Your continued use of the Site constitutes your agreement to all of these Terms.”

It’s a potent reminder that the TOS you agreed to when you first signed on with the Commons might not be the TOS that is currently on the site. This is true for most TOS you agree to–they can be changed at any time.

Further, it reminds us of the responsibility we all share to actually check in with TOS from time to time.

The Commons has one of the most readable TOS of any service I’ve seen and it shows a significant attempt to protect the privacy rights of its users. Still, it’s important that we all do our due diligence.

Until next time fellow Commoners,

Paul

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