Charlotta Duse on the perils of accepting online T&Cs without first reading what they include.

I believe I am not the only one who have pressed the ”I accept”-button when finding a public Wi-Fi connection without really reading the agreement. So when I saw an article in the newspaper about this the other day, I could not resist to read it. The very click-friendly title was ”Prepared to give away your child for free wifi?”.

The article describes how many people accept the Terms and Conditions for using free wi-fi without even reading them first (at least I hope nobody read them and then accepted). This was proven when this company established an open wi-fi connection at various places in London for people to use, under the conditions that they gave away their firstborn child, their favorite pet and all their available data to the company in question. People connected and 32 megabyte (emails, contacts, searches etc) of data was collected in just 30 minutes. Not all connections were manual. The company says that ”In just a half-hour period, 250 devices connected to the hotspot. Most of these were probably automatic connections, without their owner even realizing it”.

A part from that this was an experiment made by a company who wants to sell us their service and protect us from open, and potentially harmfull, wi-fi, it raised some interesting questions.

  • How and what data do we share with others?
  • Are we aware of sharing it? Are we even asked about it? Is more transparency needed?
  • Who’s responsibility is it?
  • Who will have access to this data, and what will it be used for?
  • Are the regular T&C not made for the digital era we live in?

According to Nadine Schuurman we find ourselves in a new kind of ”Gutenberg moment”. The process of of learning and sharing is in change, and these activities are migrating from books to the internet (Geographical Learning and Knowledge Production 2.0, 2012:1). It is not only changing how we learn but also how we live. By looking into our ”virtual traces” one can find out basically all there is to know about us. This can be invaluable information for many interests. 

This ”study” simply illustrates a lack of attention people pay to the Terms and Conditions. The agreements are usually longer than most people want to take time to read, and often difficult to understand. But are we aware of what ways our information can be used? 

And what if the conditions we did agree to change? The authors of Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think say that ”Data’s true value is like an iceberg floating in the ocean. Only a tiny part of it is visible at first sight, while much of it is hidden beneath the surface” (pos1585). This means that data is not only valuable for the purpose it was collected for here and now – but it might also serve other purposes in the future. The company that once collected our data is unlikely to come back and ask for new permissions as the applicability of the data changes along the way. How should we react to this? Must the users be more aware of what we agree to, and what our data is used for? Must the Terms and Conditions be revised, and adjusted, to our digital realities? Or should we only be proud to contribute to the advances of these technologies?

The company of this little experiment says that it ”won’t enforce the clause and make people follow through with surrendering their loved ones – but this should give us all pause […] There’s a need for more clarity and transparency about what’s actually being collected or required of the user” (http://safeandsavvy.f-secure.com/2014/09/29/danger-of-public-wifi/). The next company might not let you slip away so easily.. 


  1. Hi Lotta, thank you for this interesting post.

    It is true that most businesses use standard contracts and Terms and Conditions that prove quite onerous to read and understand (this is one of the characteristics of legal documents under the common law system). I cannot imagine how this company could have remotely tried to enforce their terms and get away with it!

    You can rest assured that the law protects consumers even if they inadvertently sign terms and conditions that are detrimental to them. T&Cs are deemed to be a kind of unilateral contract and, at least under English law, ‘modern contract law displays a greater willingness to intervene where terms [sections within a contract] are potentially unfair.’

    The EU also has a directive on unfair contract terms.

    If you are interested, you can find some information here:

    Cane, P. and Conaghan, J. (2008). Unfair Contract Terms, in The New Oxford Companion to Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Unfair Contract Terms, in Unfair Contract Terms. European Commission [online] Available at http://ec.europa.eu/justice/consumer-marketing/rights-contracts/unfair-contract/index_en.htm [Accessed 22 October 2014].

    Hopefully one day in the future when the Plain English Campaign (http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/) has more adherents within the legal sector we will start to see clearer contracts and T&Cs and more people taking the trouble to actually read the T&Cs and understand them.

    I hope this is helpful

  2. Dear Abigail, thank you for commenting and for the links!

    Luckily the company would never have gone through with their terms. But I think it shows well the role of the passive user. We accept, and we share, not knowing what happens with our data (or maybe our firstborn child).

    Signing up on facebook, twitter, linked in etc. we agree that these companies can use our data, today and in the future. ”Granting us permission to use your information not only allows us to provide Facebook as it exists today, but it also allows us to provide you with innovative features and services we develop in the future that use the information we receive about you in new ways.” (https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/your-info)

    We have no idea how Facebook will develop in the future, and neither do they. But they still have access to our data. The online data is also sold to other companies, and reused in other context, context that we know nothing about. At leasts Facebook states that they then remove identification symbols ( https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/your-info)
    But is this secondary use really something we can agree to, not even knowing what it is?

    Once data is collected it can be used in many leads – is this something we are aware of, that we want to contribute to? Should companies make money out of our private information?

    This is Facebook’s deal, just one of many examples: ”you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License).”

    Agreed to these terms of use we have nothing to say about what purposes the use of our data may take. We have agreed to this, and I think that unfortunately there is not much anyone (but ourselves) can do about that.

    I hope you are right that we will se clearer (and fairer) T&C’s in the future, and that people will actually take the time to read them.