Terms of Service, Explained

If you’ve ever tried to read the Terms of Service (TOS) for a website or piece of software, no one would blame you for giving up or falling asleep. They are written by lawyers to protect the company and are mostly full of vague jargon and legal boilerplate.

However, there are some exceptions, companies that provide a more readable version, as well as sites that try to interpret what you are accepting when you click that Agree button. Below is a short list of these services and a few good examples. I plan to update this page as I find new material. If you have a contribution, please send it to me here.

Terms of Service, Didn’t Read –  This is a website that summarizes the good and bad parts of the TOS for many major web services and then rates them A to F for transparency and fairness to users. (regularly updated)

tl;drLegal –  This site is primarily designed to help developers with the TOS for free and open source software, but they also have brief summaries for some large, public services like SnapChat, YouTube, and Instagram. (regularly updated)

TOSBack – This is a collaborative project (still in beta) led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that tracks changes in the TOS for major online organizations and reports those changes. (updated daily)

A Lawyer Digs into Instagram’s Terms of Service –  A lawyer explains some of the more relevant passages for this large photo sharing service owned by Facebook. This is posted on a site for photographers so it is focused on media ownership issues but many of the issues apply to others as well. (published December 2016)

Instagram Terms of Service for Kids – Instagram seems to be very popular in these efforts to translate TOSs. As part of a report for the British House of Lords, a barrister (English for lawyer :-) rewrote the Instagram TOS in language understandable to middle school students. See appendix 8 of the report linked above for the full text. (Published March 2017)

Terms and Conditions: The Unauthorized Adaptation – A writer and illustrator explains all 35 pages of the iTunes terms and conditions text in the form of a very clever graphic novel. The book is $15 plus shipping and you can download an excerpt here. (published March 2017)

Really Good Emails Terms of Service – This company helps organizations design effective email campaigns. This is a good example of a TOS that is both informative and entertaining. (posted March 2017)

Zapier Terms of Service – I’m not entirely sure what these guys do (it says they make “web automation software”), but the way they explain their TOS in simple language along side the legal version is a good example of how it should be done.