Do we need standards to protect customers online?

Google has decided to discontinue their online video store, effectively just taking back the DRM-“protected” videos they had sold before. (BoingBoing has a brief round-up.)

This just shows, again, how deadly all the license agreements are that all users click through on a daily basis. (Yes: you, too.) Basically, whenever you purchase or rent anything on the web, and whenever you sign up for any service online, you have to just click through a lengthy, mostly very intransparent legalese agreement in order to do what you came for. Often, this agreement states what the customer (you) is allowed to do (not much), and what they are not allowed to do (a lot). Also, it usually states something along the lines that the company can do pretty much whatever they want to, plus they can change the agreement anytime they want, plus they won’t need to notify you of those changes, and while they’re at it, they might spit in your face if they feel like it.

It’s exactly this issue that Andy Sternberg has been trying to fight with his project The Small Print Project, and Cory Doctorow with Reasonable Agreement.

Awhile back, they came up with this counter measure, which is basically just a anti version, reversing the point of view of those kinds of bogus agreements:

READ CAREFULLY. By [accepting this material|accepting this payment|accepting this business-card|viewing this t-shirt|reading this sticker] you agree, on behalf of your employer, to release me from all obligations and waivers arising from any and all NON-NEGOTIATED agreements, licenses, terms-of-service, shrinkwrap, clickwrap, browsewrap, confidentiality, non-disclosure, non-compete and acceptable use policies (”BOGUS AGREEMENTS”) that I have entered into with your employer, its partners, licensors, agents and assigns, in perpetuity, without prejudice to my ongoing rights and privileges. You further represent that you have the authority to release me from any BOGUS AGREEMENTS on behalf of your employer.

A joke, sure. But at least as good (and probably invalid) as the ones we all have to sign on a day-to-day basis.

In the meat space, consumers are increasingly protected by laws and regulations. Good thing, too: Gone are the times where you had to just swallow if your landlord / salesperson / airline / phone carrier could tried to rip you off. (In the European Union, there’s a Commissioner for Consumer Protection, for example. More here.) How efficient those laws are I cannot judge, but just think about used to be practice and what is now, and I think you’ll agree that it has changed for the better. Of course there’s still quite some room for improvement.

Funny enough, in the virtual world things aren’t always as easy, it seems. It’s really quite ridiculous to see how common it is to include these bogus agreements which afford no rights to the customers, and all rights to the company. Nobody forces anyone to use a service, you say? Well, true, but this isn’t just about choice. Customers are, quite often, pretty much tricked into agreeing to those “legal” texts, which I put in quotation marks because I think that a) they might not hold up in court in a huge number of cases, and b) they seem to be written in the most non-transparent, confusing, and wannabe legal way just to keep customers from really reading them. Legalese, in its purest form.

Also, since these terms are completely non-negotiable, it hardly seems like a good deal, does it? (Have you tried to talk the iTunes license agreement over with an Apple employee? Would you buy your milk at the local store if you had to sign that the owner can just come to your house and take the milk back anytime, or would allow you to pour it into coffee, but not use it for breakfast?) But I’m just paraphrasing here: Check out Cory Doctorow’s rants for more info and neat examples.

The point is: We need licenses to conduct transactions. But we also really need a set of standards to make this kind of transaction fair and transparent to everybody involved, and smoothly so.

Creative Commons did it for copyright-related licenses: The crew around Larry Lessig managed to write complex, but fair and legally binding licenses and then boil it down to a human-readable version. Made from a small number of modules that creators and consumers can combine, you can create a simple, yet powerful license to fit your needs – no matter if you’re the consumer or the creator. It’s easy to fully understand, and since you can re-combine the individual modules it’s possible to tailor the license you need.

It’s just this kind of simplified system that we also need for user agreements: A set of rules everybody can understand. This rules could either be applied by the company (but should be a lot less restrictive as it is practice these days), or even be negotiated between company and customer. (For example, you could agree to have ads served for cheaper tracks, or to pay regular price but get full control over the tracks. Or to be expressly allowed to tinker with the software you get if in turn you agree to give up any claims against the company. Or what not.)

Anyone out there who’s working on this kind of stuff? I’d be very curious about it…?