EFF Announces TOS Tracker

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One of the largest, and least talked about, threats users face on the Web is not malicious users or government intrusion, but the sites they know and trust to host their content and the terms of service they have us agree to.

As the Facebook TOS controversy in February revealed, changes to the TOS can be dangerous to user privacy, security and intellectual property.

However, it is standard practice for many sites to silently change their terms of service as the terms itself allow them to do. Users are often unaware of potentially worrisome changes until after a problem has arisen, when it is often too late to do anything about them.

This is why the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has created TOSBack, which tracks the terms of service for, currently, 20 different sites including Flickr, Facebook, Google, Twitter and more. Once these sites change their TOS, no matter how small of a change it is, TOSBack reports on it, putting it out over an RSS feed for easy subscription.

Theoretically, this will make it more difficult for these larger companies to change their TOS in the dark of night, making sure that any changes they slip in are brought to the public’s attention.

The Basics

TOSBack is actually a very straightforward service. As the automated system detects a change in one of the tracked terms of service, the system creates a new entry for it. Users can then visit the blog entry page for that change and view the differences side-by-side. TOSBack will highlight the changes between the terms, making it very easy to tell, at a glance, what is different.

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The technology is very simple and could not be easier to use. If you subscribe to the RSS feed, you’ll get updates on any TOS changes for the sites it tracks and, if you use that site/service, you’d be wise to take a quick look to make sure you agree with those alterations.

However, there are limitations to TOSBack. First, it only tracks 20 services, Though you probably use at least a few of the services on the list, there’s almost certainly going to be some sites you visit/use daily that are not covered at this time. On that front, it is not a complete solution though they seem to be adding new sites regularly.

The bigger problem is that the matching algorithm has something of a hair trigger. For example, this reported change in the Facebook privacy policyzbtbxwtxcx was nothing more than a change of address and this change to the YouTube privacy policy was just a change to the date. Though these might be important changes for attorneys or others actively involved in a dispute with these sites, to average users, they are fairly meaningless.

Also, it is important to note that it does not provide any commentary on the changes themselves and, in cases where there have been massive changes, such as with this change to the Google Blogger TOS, it will not help you parse what’s new. That type of anlaysis requires human evaluation TOSBack appears to be a solely automated service.

Despite these limitations though, TOSBack is still a valuable service that I encourage anyone who values their copyright, their privacy and their security to start following.

Bottom Line

TOSBack is easily one of the most practical and broadly useful tools the EFF has launched in a very long time. Though they are very well known for being both politically and legally active on issues of copyright and privacy, this is a completely neutral and very important tool for tracking the changes to terms of service and empowering users to understand exactly what their rights are when they use their favorite sites.

Though there is room for improvement and expansion, it already is invaluable is something everyone who uses the Web and puts content on it should consider subscribing to.

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