Digital Rights Group: We've Got Your Back on ToS

Next time a major Web site such as Facebook, Google or eBay changes their seldom-read terms of service, a new project from the Electronic Frontier Foundation will be there to chronicle the alterations and highlight them for all to see.

Called TOSBack, the EFF site launched recently and is already tracking 44 sites.

"Terms of service form the foundation of your relationship with social networking sites, online businesses, and other Internet communities, but most people become aware of these terms only when there's a problem," said EFF Activism and Technology Manager Tim Jones, in a press release. "We created TOSBack to help consumers monitor terms of service for the websites they use everyday, and show how the terms change over time."

Most Internet users read these agreements about as often than they peruse car owner's manuals, which is to say only when it smells like something is burning.

Yet ToS changes happen all the time, those changes are often important, and they can cause a stink, as Facebook and its faithful learned recently when the company proposed alterations to its terms that were perceived as Facebook helping itself to the pictures and writings of members. Much caterwauling and backpedaling ensued before order was restored.

The EFF project may actually accelerate such flare-ups in the future, which would be a good thing.

Some of the initial changes that have been highlighted would appear to be trivial, such as one from Facebook that notes nothing but a change in contact information (and who uses snail-mail addresses anymore?).

But others are clearly more meaningful, such as one flagged from the ToS of domain name registrar GoDaddy.com, adding the language: "You acknowledge and agree a copy of the customer contact data you provide will be used as the initial domain contact data and made public in the WHOIS database." And another from eBay that adds several paragraphs of new verbiage covering a buyer's obligations when alleging receipt of a fraudulent item.

The site's homepage includes a "highlighted policies" box, which presumably will help pull some of the nuggets from what promises to quickly become an avalanche of change notices.

It will be interesting to see if the site proves useful … or just gets tucked back into the glove compartment.

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