Thursday, May 18, 2006

Terms of Service

It has long been my practice -- for my father instilled in me a sense of the importance one should attach to contracts -- actually to read the various terms of service-type documents with which one is nowadays presented prior to every transaction, of goods or information, more advanced than ordering a meal. (Perhaps some fast food places would do well to have an EELA -- end eater license agreement, of course -- to which one agrees implicitly by eating the relevant food, prohibiting such unlikely activities as joining in class-action lawsuits or eating such food only for a month in order to document the effects. They could probably even print it on the wrappers for the burgers. However, one shouldn't say such a thing outside of parentheses, because who knows but that the idea will actually be implemented.) This frequently leads one to discover such unexpected tit-bits as the disclaimer on the back of some plane tickets that the airline in question does not actually, contractually (an interesting but strange rhyme), have to convey one from one's starting place to one's destination. (Specifically, though I can't remember the exact wording, neither end of the itinerary is guaranteed to be where it is supposed to be.) While I can understand the CYA-type motivation behind such a statement, it does seem a mysterious thing to which to agree -- and yet we do, not just because we don't read these agreements, but also because some services are essential, and the contracts are so ubiquitous that the best, it seems, that we can hope to do is to avoid getting more than usually screwed.

I think the highlight of my experience came when my wife was trying to buy a Verizon cell phone at Radio Shack. After we had selected the phone, the serviceperson took us to the cash register and presented us with an electronic signature pad. "Sign here to indicate your agreement to the terms and conditions," he instructed us, to which I could not help rejoining that we had not, in fact, seen the terms and conditions, and would maybe he care to show them to us before we agreed to them? This request seemed a little startling to him. (I have frequently noticed that people squirm when they see that I fully intend to read through the pages of documents they expect me to sign. I don't mean to cause trouble for people who, after all, bear no responsibility for the state of such contracts; but, if you as a company want me to agree quickly to your terms and conditions, present me with something like the GPL -- which, whatever its faults, is short, standardised, and, not least, very, very user-friendly.) After that parenthesis, we rejoin the serviceperson just in time for him to say "We can't print out a copy of the terms and conditions until you sign to indicate your agreement." When I balked, he pointed out that, even if (to paraphrase a bit) later reading indicated that one of the conditions was our agreement to host colonies of guppies in our intestines, we could simply immediately cancel our contract and be none the worse for wear. This was hard to argue with -- not, mind, because it was such a convincing argument, but rather because, presumably, my right to cancel, rather than being God-given, would, or would not, be granted by the terms and conditions to which I (my wife, rather) was being asked to put my name sight unseen. I know that doubting the existence of such a provision would be an undue indulgence in paranoia, and we did eventually sign the pad and obtain a copy of the contract, which we duly read, and which was not so offensive to cause us to cancel -- but still, to have a setup whereby one cannot print out the terms and conditions without a signature, and doesn't even have a spare copy for reference, seems a very strange one indeed.

However, this is a rare highlight in my contract-reading adventures. Given the national media spotlight which, I am sure, shines relentlessly down upon me, I thought I would take the opportunity to bring attention to two less spectacular but still amusing snippets from EULAs. I have excised the company name from the first one because, despite its ludicrousness, I find the software very useful and don't want to appear to be criticising the software itself:

Because of the unique nature of the Software, you understand and agree that xxxxx will suffer irrevocable damage in the event you fail to comply with any of the terms of paragraph 3 of this License Agreement and that monetary damages may be inadequate to compensate xxxxx for such breach.
I cannot help picturing, when I read this, officers of the company brushing away offers of monetary restitution with a sniffled "No ... you've hurt me too much for that now." (Paragraph 3 instructs the end user not to reverse engineer the software, pretend to be its author, or redistribute it.) As I say, I like the software a lot, but I'm none too sure what its 'unique nature' is (though I did agree to this EULA).

The other snippet comes from the terms of service for Blog*Spot itself. Curiously, a similar statement occurs in the terms of service for Blogger (which appear first!), but without the prelude. In any case, here it is:

Now, this next part seems really damn obvious, but everyone else has it in their TOS's so someone's probably gotten sued for not having it. So: In order to use the Service, you must obtain access to the World Wide Web, either directly or through devices that access web-based content, and pay any service fees associated with such access.
I was vacillating a bit over which blog-hosting company I'd choose, but to see such a sentence in the terms of service I must confess allayed some of my fears. (Aside from the ones working for companies which are so nasty they must swathe the nastiness in many obscuring layers of gauzy legalese, do lawyers really think that a friendly, conversational, and understandable -- but still precise -- ToS would be less successful than the kind we have now?)

I thought I'd close with a lovely quote from Manin's article in the April 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the AMS. I have omitted a few words, but only because they are (to the layman as well, I can't help believing, as to not a few expert mathematicians) incomprehensibly technical, not because they change the meaning of the sentence.

[MacPherson] has also invented a construction which ... revives Euclid's original intuition in the context of refined perversity.
I have decided that, if I ever again teach a class on Euclidean geometry, I will tell my students that we are working towards the end goal of refined perversity. (Incidentally, although I understood very little of it, I enjoyed the article very much for its manifold (no pun intended) perspectives on the seemingly fairly innocent idea of dimension.)


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