Terms of Abuse: Reading the Fine Print


The devil is in the terms of service.

Thanks to a contract clause, British game seller Gamestation was able to lay claim to the souls of 7,500 online customers as part of an April Fool's Day joke. The company plans to nullify the claims, but the "immortal soul clause" is a reminder of the dangers of the fine print that can be found in every online transaction, software installation and at least one Chinese takeout order.

The introduction of even a few sentences into user agreements has been known to ignite firestorms of debate. Last year, the non-profit digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation created a program to track changes to the terms of service agreements on popular sites, including Google, eBay and Facebook. Here are five things users have signed away, starting with Gamestation:

  1. Your Immortal Soul. Customers who agreed to the Gamestation Terms of Service on April 1 granted the company the non-transferable option to claim their immortal souls. The few customers who took advantage of the opportunity to opt out received a £5 coupon, but the store claims that its terms are ignored by all but 12 percent of online purchasers. When time came to claim customers' souls, the company reserved the right to serve notice "in 6 (six) foot high letters of fire, however we can accept no liability for any loss or damage caused by such an act."
  2. Your Online Life. Any user who installed Google's new Chrome browser on the day it launched in 2008 gave the search giant virtually unrestricted rights to everything created, submitted and posted on the Web using the browser. By the next day, a staffer explained the language was a mistake, the result of copying terms from other Google services, and promised that the language would be modified.
  3. Everything You Upload. Last year, Facebook sparked user protests when it changed its terms of service to effectively give the site perpetual and total rights to any content uploaded by its users. The site quickly reversed course, and in a post on Facebook's bill of rights page, the company said "we never intended to claim ownership over people's content even though that's what it seems like to many people." Debate still rages over the company's privacy settings.
  4. The Right To Criticize. In 1999, Network World Fusion magazine published an unfavorable review of firewall software developed by Network Associates, now known as McAfee. The company demanded that the magazine issue a retraction because the review violated the software's licensing agreement, which stated that customers "shall not disclose the results of any benchmark test" without the company's prior written consent. The New York attorney general's office filed suit in 2002 and the next year a judge ruled against the software maker3.
  5. Protection From Termination. Microsoft began banning users from its Xbox Live service near the end of last year for cheating at "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2." The length of the bans from the online multiplayer network ranged from 24 hours to two weeks and were allowed under a terms of use clause that gave Microsoft an "absolute power to terminate," according to the EFF's Ed Bayley.
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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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