November 17, 2011, 10:59 AM —
It's fair to say that fine print has never gotten much respect. Go ahead, ask your parents if they can name a bank statement or utility bill that explained something new to them.
These days, we overwhelmingly ignore every single notice that appears on our computers and phones every time we install, update, or sign up for something, whether it's an End User License Agreement, a list of Terms of Service, or just a plain old Agreement. And we're raising an entire generation to have even less respect for the fine print. But we're also inundated with unexpected fees, nasty online privacy violations, and the sinking sense that none of us knows exactly what our devices can and can't do.
Consider the case of the pre-teen child who, according to Facebook's Terms of Service, is not allowed to join up with Facebook, because they're not yet 13. But in a survey of 1,0007 households with children ages 10-14, 55 percent of parents with a 12-year-old reported that their child was signed up for the social networking site. More tellingly, out of all the parents whose children were on Facebook, 72 percent said their child signed up before they were 13, and among the parents who were aware their children had a Facebook account, 64 percent helped them create that technically illegitimate account.
It's one thing to skim, or skip entirely, the ever-so-slight changes to a minor iTunes upgrade, but it's another thing entirely to show your kids how to outright lie to their computers when there's something inconvenient on the screen. But it's hard not to sympathize with parents who help their kids shuffle quickly toward an “I agree.” With exceedingly few exceptions, the licensing agreements we're given are extremely long, terribly hard to grasp, and written to cover so many aspects of every single way you might use this thing you're just starting to use that it's both humorous and pointless in its incomprehensibility.
But software and web agreements that nobody can understand are not that funny, and they do have a point. If you tried getting your under-13 child onto Google Plus, and he later updated his profile or another Google service with his real age, he could lose access to his Gmail inbox, photos on Picasa, and other Google services, potentially forever, because that's in the Terms of Service.
The vast majority of people posting on Facebook and Twitter are unaware that those sites have the right to sell and share whatever they put up there (a right which Twitter is starting to monetize).
Those complex and largely ignored terms have led to one of the top country's lawyers admitting in open court that even he doesn't read the agreements that "pop up on my screen every time I get a new program", and so losing ground in defending his client's right to keep his Twitter activity out of investigators' hands. And, as you might imagine, nobody who's had any hands-on experience with the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis, the modern healthcare industry, or with signing up for a smartphone data plan has any faith that fine print and inscrutable license agreements are getting better.