Friday, March 19, 2010

How terms of service are shaping our lives

A while ago, while doing research on a class paper, a sudden realization dawned on me. EULAs and TOSs are the way of the future!

Indeed, TOSs, for instance on websites, govern what you can or cannot do on the website. This considerably modifies people's relationship with content, by transforming a situation that was solely governed by general law into a contractual relationship.

Take the example of television. When you watch at TV show, the only things determining what you can or cannot do with what is broadcasted to you are legal provisions. There is no contract between you and the broadcaster, and the broadcaster can't limit your rights.

But on the Internet, things are different. Surf on any webpage, and there will almost always be TOS. "By accessing this website, you agree..." Now, that same TV show that was broadcasted on the air can be accessed online, but WITH CONDITIONS. All of a sudden, with the sheer power of the Internet, you enter a contractual relationship with the broadcaster, or the owner of the website. Now that there is a contract, the website's owner can effectively determine what actions, albeit otherwise legal, you may or may not take regarding their content.

Take the example of books. Buy a book, and you own it; it's yours forever. Buy an ebook, and you risk having it taken from you anytime.

So, what is so special about the Internet that enables people to impose a contract on you?

Nothing, really.

Internet was just the new medium that enabled people to experiment with new rules. Having TOS on a website would be akin to having a set of rules in a building you enter. Having a TOS or EULA on an ebook you buy is like drafting a contract with a seller every time you buy stuff.

Let us then approach this the other way around. If it is OK to have a EULA on an ebook you have purchased, then wouldn't it also be OK to have a EULA on a plain old dead-tree version of the book? Probably.

And this is where I'm getting at. EULAs and TOS are increasingly shaping our relationship with things around us. More and more people will find that a sales contract is not enough. Companies selling their products will want to retain some form of control over their product, even after having sold it. Control is power. Why then not control it if you can?

I see the future of the consumer-product relationship thus: On one side, consumers will be increasingly subjected to imposed contracts with the manufacturers, distributors, or retailers. These contracts will chalk out the extent of the rights and obligations of the parties, and will become the main source of norms. On the other hand, the corpus of laws will progressively turn into a set of public-policy provisions aimed at striking a balance between the corporations and the consumers.

This post from BoingBoing shows that the trend has already started.
Chinese Take-out Terms of Service