User Agreements : Selling your Soul

I watched him closely for a few minutes, trying to decide if I should even ask.  I’ve learned over the years that sometimes, I don’t want to know.  Really.  But he’d been studying the words on the screen for longer than I’ve ever seen him read anything that wasn’t printed on the back of a cereal box in bright colors. And when he laughed, I had to know what parallel universe had my 16 year-old son reading the fine print without a colorful picture in sight.  So…I asked.

“Whatcha reading?”  He placed a finger on the computer screen to hold his place like it was a book or something.  I suppressed a smirk.

A smirk that quickly morphed into shock when he answered, “The User Agreement for GameStation.”

“What?  You’re reading a User Agreement?  I can’t get you to read the notes I leave you on the fridge.  And …and why were you laughing?”   Turns out, he agreed to give his soul to GameStation that day.  No.  Seriously.  That was part of the ‘User Agreement.’  I didn’t believe him until he read it aloud to me and even then I had to see it for myself.  It clearly stated, “By placing an order via this website, you agree to grant us a non-transferable option to claim, now and for ever more, your immortal soul.” (Yes, it even had the grammatical error.)

I admit, I laughed too.  However, it made me think.  What else are we selling besides our souls?

Consider this.  How many EULAs (End User License Agreements) have you clicked past without reading them?  I’d be willing to bet it’s about as many as you’ve had to agree to in order to download every program or piece of software you’ve ever used.  You might have glanced at them…just long enough to scroll to the end and find the “agree” button.  That counts as looking at it, right?

The reality is, they are typically full of legal jargon that could probably pass for Klingon before it would English.  That’s why no one reads them.  No one wants to.  I personally haven’t watched enough Star Trek yet.  And companies know we don’t read their incomprehensible garble, so they add in whatever they want.  Some of it even borderlines on ridiculous.

For example, Apple’s iTunes EULA vividly forbids you from using iTunes to create missiles and biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.  Not kidding.  I wasn’t even aware there was a weapon development option in iTunes.  My law enforcement contact tells me it has something to do with the timing of the song.  I’ll be checking that out.  For research purposes, of course.

At one point, Microchip (a provider of microcontroller and analog semiconductors) had this in the EULA for its MPLAB X:

Microchip’s authorized representatives will have the right to reasonably inspect, announced or unannounced and in its sole and absolute discretion, Licensee’s premises and to audit Licensee’s records and inventory of Licensee’s use of the Software, whether located on Licensee’s premises or elsewhere, at any time, in order to ensure Licensee’s adherence to the terms of this Agreement.”

So, if they wanted to knock on your door at 2 a.m. to make sure you were complying with their EULA, all you could do was brew a pot of coffee and offer them some jelly toast while they audited you.

But the seriousness of these EULAs hits a little closer to your privacy than just coffee and toast.  Here are some common examples of rights these agreements take from you without your awareness (mainly because you didn’t read about their diabolical plans to take over the cyber world).

If they host your photos, they own them.  You just threw the best party ever and you want to share it with all those losers, I mean friends, who didn’t attend.  So, you splash the pics on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and any other site they might linger on.  Why wouldn’t you?  They should’ve been there.  Two months later, you get a message from Aunt Betty asking when you started doing ads for an online dating service.  And she offers to set you up with the nice boy who lives down the street.  What happened?

Well, most every social network has a clause in their EULA that allows them to use your pictures for commercial purposes.  And don’t think deleting those photos is going to get your face off the Plenty of Sharks dating ads.  There’s also a clause that says they can keep the rights to images you’ve removed until a “commercially reasonable” time has passed.  Dust off the wetsuit and oxygen tank, you’re swimming for a while.

They know who you are and where you’ve been.  GPS is practically in every device manufactured.  Your car has OnStar, your phone and tablet has built in GPS.  They see you.  You might even start to expect to hear them tell you this in a creepy voice through your phone.  They have no qualms using the info they collect on their cyber stake-out to their profitable advantage either.  OnStar even changed their terms of use contract to force users to allow them to sell their driving data to whomever they want.  Data like your speed history, location, odometer reading, seat-belt usage and more.  No big deal?  Just wait until you get the rate increase from your insurance company, Dale Earnhardt.  And if you think that’s something, sit down for this one.

Apple can use iTunes to watch you.  It’s called geo tracking, pretty much what it means is Apple knows your exact location.  All the time. Essentially, the location data your phone stores is sent to a hidden database file and syncs to your computer every time you connect your phone.  So, somewhere on your computer is a hidden log of every place you’ve been, complete with longitude/latitude coordinates, and time stamp.  Oh, but they will only sell or share your info with their affiliates…which is, oh I dunno, most every digitally connected company on the planet!

You bought it, but you don’t own it.  We all spend ungodly amounts of money on some type of media entertainment.  Music, movies, video games or eBooks.  Somewhere in that list lies your vice.  And, you might think you purchased that mp3 by Duran Duran, but you didn’t.  What you purchased was the license to use it.  Many of these sites have a clause in their terms that reserves them the right to change, suspend or fully remove any product or content they choose. And they’re not talking about from their site so no one else can buy it. Nope.  They mean from the device you downloaded the file to.  Gone, like the CD collection your ex took for spite.  Gone, gone.  Just ask the guy whose entire Amazon Kindle library was deleted.  Yeah, eight years worth of books and notes.  Poof!!  Gone like Uncle Jack on New Year’s Eve.

The stories could go on and on.  Like the fact that the EULA for my Asus tablet doesn’t cover hardware damage caused by “space invasions.”  What it boils down to is, you will likely find similar terms in the EULAs of most companies that have any connection to the digital world.  So, just assume that means every company in existence.  And what does this mean for us as consumers?  It means we really should learn to speak, or at least read and partially comprehend, Klingon.  At least Asus seems to think so.

The take away point here is: every User Agreement is going to be geared to benefit the company.  As consumers, we should at least educate ourselves to what it is we are agreeing to and then decide if it’s worth selling your soul for.

Do any of you actually read the user agreements? Have you found any ridiculous clauses in them?


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