Services, Terms and Conditions, Oh my!

Services, Terms and Conditions, Oh my!

Imagine you decided you were going to get fit and start running (or maybe you are fit and already go running regularly). You're serious about it so you go out and buy some new running gear. Shorts, under armor t-shirt, little arm band thing that holds your phone and a new pair of Asics running shoes.

At your local sports shop something curious happens. Just before you pay for your shoes the person on the other side of the counter tells you that you need to accept some terms and conditions before you can complete the purchase. She whips out a think stack of papers that detail the aforementioned Ts & Cs.

It is an end user license agreement that outlines your rights with regards to the shoes you're about to purchase.

"Would you like to continue with your purchase?" asks the salesperson.

"Yeah, sure," you say. You just want your shoes and there's no chance you're about to read through that stack of paper.

Fast forward 6 months and you've made a whole lot of progress. Your 5K time is down to less than 30 minutes and you're feeling pretty good about it.

Then, one Tuesday evening before you set out for a run, something unexpected happens. You go to put on your running shoes but you can't get your feet in. Something about your shoes has changed. It's like they've shrunk, locked you out.

You don't go running that day.

Ownership & Control

So what happened? Remember that T&C thing that the salesperson presented you with? In that stack of paper there was a clause that stated that the shoe company can at any time deactivate your shoes. That those shoes are a service that they control.

They also do not have to explain to you or justify why they have blocked you from accessing this service. It is completely at their discretion.

Now the question you have to ask yourself is whether or not you would ever buy a pair of shoes that come with such T&Cs (assuming that the tech to remotely disable them is available)?

I can't imagine that many people would. But what if they were the only running shoe company out there? Or they added some value that no other company could add? In that case being locked out of your shoes may become an acceptable risk.

What does it all mean?

Ok so the above example is clearly a silly one, but in the world of software we give up control like this all of the time.

Our phones and computers can be accessed and shut down by the companies that sell them to us.

The online services we can use can ban our accounts without a moments notice or even an explanation.

The software we buy generally comes with a EULA, which is an agreement that 99% of people will never read but accept anyway.

This EULA dictates how we can interact with said software, and usually gives the software provider significant enough control to be able to do what they want with the software you are running. There have even been reports in the past of software that runs background calculations on your computer. These calculations contribute to that company's profits (it was mining bitcoin, for those that understand what that means). They were literally using user CPUs for profit without the user knowing, but were covered against any recourse through their EULA:

COMPUTER CALCULATIONS, SECURITY: as part of downloading a Mutual Public, your computer may do mathematical calculations for our affiliated networks to confirm transactions and increase security. Any rewards or fees collected by WBT or our affiliates are the sole property of WBT and our affiliates.

Then there are online services such as Twitter, Facebogram and Youtube. Most use these services for entertainment purposes, but not the content creators. These people build businesses on and integrate these services into their livelihoods.

Any one of these services can shut you down and/or change their business model such that it seriously impacts the user's that rely on them. They have every right to, they are private companies after all.

Twitter and Patreon both have recently started banning accounts of popular users with a significant followership because of their controversial opinions. In many cases this was driven by tweets deemed to be 'hate speech', though that is a pretty fuzzy term that can be easily bent for convenience.

Having said all that, this post is not an anti-twitter and software as a service rant. It's about awareness.

If you are going to put your eggs in someone else's basket then you want to make sure you know a little about that basket. Will you be able to get your eggs back out again? Will the basket crush them some day for some arbitrary reason? Will you be charged to get them back?

Using social media giants to promote business is painfully unavoidable these days, so most will have to interact with them in some capacity - but beware, they are in control, not you. If you put your life into their service then they also control that too.

Put simply, think carefully about your dependencies.

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