Terms and Conditions Will Apply: Living in a Reality of "I Accept"

05/12/2015 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

The third installment of the "Blog Blog Project" continues this semester with a blog from Natalie Hines, a Senior in Communication at the University of Delaware. Here she explores the new reality of living in a world where "terms and conditions will apply."

As a kid growing up in the '90s, I watched the Disney Channel original movie, Smart House, where a teenage boy wins a computerized dream house, fully equipped with a speaking electronic housewife. The digital housewife becomes obsessed with the family that moves in, watching their every move and wanting to become a part of the real human family. As a child, I can remember thinking how odd it was to imagine having technology know what you're thinking and doing at all times.

Fast-forward 16 years: talking to Siri is just a typical part of a busy day, websites know what we need and want, and companies target ads that reflect our most recent Google searches. Recently, Amazon produced a physical device called the Dash button, which became available to the United States last month on an invite-only basis. The button, slightly larger than your thumb and accessible via Wi-Fi, automatically orders another shipment of any product of your choice from your Amazon Prime account--all with a click of a button. Companies are rushing to partner up with the Dash button phenomenon in the hopes of increasing sales and brand recognition. For example, Whirlpool has partnered with Amazon to create Whirpool's Cabrio line of washers and dryers that, with a simple software update, notifies Amazon when you need more laundry detergent. Have no fear; the "Smart House" has become a reality.

Reading this article reminded me of watching the 2013 documentary, "Terms and Conditions May Apply" in my Communication and Law class. The film brought to light how we now live in a world where hitting "accept" means so little to us, but so much more to the companies' collecting our data. How will Amazon users feel about the Dash button? Will they readily accept the terms and conditions policy for this new device?

After watching Terms and Conditions, which some might categorize as a horror film, I began to think about all the "I accept" boxes I have clicked in recent months: iTunes, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook. When accepting these companies' terms and conditions, we as consumers are giving away our personal information to the corporation and at times, often without even reading what we are giving to them. As pointed out in the documentary, it's now even easier for the government to get our information from these sites, and unfortunately, we have handed it to them on a silver platter.

Cullen Hoback, the director of the documentary, points out how LinkedIn had, until recently, one of the most appalling terms and conditions ever written, calling it "abysmal, "overreaching," and "ridiculous." He also argues that Apple goes too far in order to protect themselves. For example, Apple's iTunes conditions state that, "You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes prohibited by United States Law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture, or production of nuclear, missile, or chemical or biological weapons". LinkedIn, which is used by more than 300 million people across the world, cited in its terms and conditions prior to October, 2014 that, "You grant LinkedIn a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, assignable... right to us to copy, prepare derivative works of, distribute...use and commercialize, in any way... any information you provide... to LinkedIn, including... any user generated content, ideas, concepts, techniques or data to the services, you submit to LinkedIn, without any further consent, notice and/or compensation to you." While the terms have changed to reduce concerns, this basically meant that if you were a LinkedIn user before 2014 and you published a great idea on your profile, LinkedIn had permission to commercialize your content. Did you know that?

Hoback says that the most surprising thing he discovered while making the documentary was that retrospective surveillance of all our information, contacts, Web traffic and even our conversations can be used by the government. And in the end, according to Hoback, it can be used to make anyone a criminal. This closely relates to how Edward Snowden has provided news organizations with NSA files documenting the scope of surveillance since 2013.

These terms and conditions need to be rethought and rewritten with the user's privacy as top priority. We should have control over our data, and it should not be owned by the company. And most importantly, we need to start reading those terms and conditions before saying, "I accept."