Behold, a Terms of Service Agreement That Is Actually User-Friendly

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He's probably reading a Terms of Service agreement.   Image: Roger Jegg/Shutterstock

In the post herein, I ("Author") shall endeavor to produce a collection of words ("Content") that shall demonstrate that Terms of Service ("TOS") agreements are the digital incarnation of the devil ("Devil") himself.

Actually, scratch that. I won't try to prove how awful most companies' Terms of Service are because you already know how awful they are. There are few things worse about the web than being forced to read thousands of words of dense legalese in order to upload a photo or send a message to a friend. The typical TOS -- a legal necessity, but a human calamity -- both enables the Internet and sucks the life-force out of it, one run-on sentence at a time. 

Which is why, of course, nobody actually reads companies' Terms of Service. Who has the time, or the patience? I may well have promised my firstborn to iTunes, or agreed to name said firstborn Twitter. No clue. Most of us impatient web users click the little "Agree" button and hope ("Hope") that we haven't just agreed to something crazy.

But the TOS paradigm of wretchedness could be shifting. Take the photo-sharing site 500px, which features Terms of Service that are helpfully divided into columns: life-sucking legalese on the left ... and plain English on the right. 

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Here, for example, is part of 500px's actual Terms of Service -- the Registration section of the 3,000-word agreement:

As a condition to using Services, you are required to open an account with 500px and select a password and username, and to provide registration information. The registration information you provide must be accurate, complete, and current at all times. Failure to do so constitutes a breach of the Terms, which may result in immediate termination of your 500px account.

You may not use as a username the name of another person or entity or that is not lawfully available for use, a name or trade mark that is subject to any rights of another person or entity other than you without appropriate authorization, or a name that is otherwise offensive, vulgar or obscene.

You are responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of your password and are solely responsible for all activities resulting from the use of your password and conducted through your 500px account.

Services are available only to individuals who are either (i) at least 18 years old, or (ii) at least 14 years old, and who are authorized to access the Site by a parent or legal guardian. If you have authorized a minor to use the Site, you are responsible for the online conduct of such minor, and the consequences of any misuse of the Site by the minor. Parents and legal guardians are warned that the Site does display photographs and images containing nudity and violence that may be offensive to some.

The Services are for use by individuals who are photographers and graphic artists. Accounts may not be opened by galleries, agents and other market intermediaries and entities who represent photographers and graphic artists or sell their works. If you do not qualify for registration you are not permitted to open an account or use the Services.

And here are 500px's Terms of Service, translated:

Basically, To fully use the services you need to create your own account, without violating other peoples' rights.

Basically, awesome. And fingers crossed that the bifurcated approach is an indication of what's to come for the contracts drawn up between users and services on the Internet. Legalese, sure, is legalese for a reason; it needs to be detailed and specific. But it doesn't follow that it can't be translated into something a little more user-friendly.

And while the two-columned approach leaves room for companies to be sneaky in their dealings with customers ("You are responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of your password and are solely responsible for all activities resulting from the use of your password and also must pay a fealty of 100 delicious homemade cookies to the Site each month") ... they already have that ability. Just this week, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the violation of a company's terms of service isn't, strictly, illegal -- and it based its ruling on the fact that the typical TOS is "lengthy, opaque, subject to change, and seldom read."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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