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In 2014, Mashable published an article “10 Things You Didn’t Know You Agreed to via Terms of Service.” It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that some of these clauses exist, and others might be very surprised by a couple of them. It’s probably safe to assume that most of us do not read them…Who has time to read a 50+ page document of legal-ese when there are pictures to post and status updates to write?

Generally speaking, user agreements and terms of service involve protecting the institution’s interests to prevent or mitigate legal action by its users. In a litigious society such as ours, this makes sense. But there are vastly different approaches to user agreements. Many companies attempt to include language that gives them permission to do things to which we might not otherwise agree, such as some of the terms listed in the Mashable or Facebook’s addition of “research” to its user policy four months after a manipulation study that had much of the tech and ethics world up in arms a couple of years ago. Some companies include language that gives them flexibility and opportunity to make money. And a few, unfortunately very few, seek to protect the user as much as the company.

As far as I know, there are few laws or regulations giving companies guidance on what they should or should not include in their user agreements. Those terms often come from upper levels of management at an institution and their attorneys. As many of us have seen, clauses are often included giving an institution the right to add or amend the user agreement at any time…with or without notifying their users as to specific changes (as dictated in their user agreement). Because we, the public, have the right not to use a service and to not sign a user agreement, I doubt that there will be regulations any time soon. The terms of service are part of the “cost” of doing business with a company.

And having an account on a social media platform is doing business with that company. I think, honestly, this is a small part of the problem. We have become such an entitled culture that many assume that free social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram are our right to use. That using the Apple store is like going into any other retail store to make a purchase (can you imagine if the Gap suddenly made us all sign a user agreement before we could even enter the store?). That visiting a website is like going to the library to do research. But the digital world is much different from what some call “real” life (some might argue that the ubiquity of the internet makes it just as real as our physical world, but that’s an entirely different discussion). And user agreements are just a part of those differences.

Reading a user agreement can give you a lot of insight as to a company’s MO and core values. Do they value their customers or users? Or are they only protecting their own interests and looking for ways to make more money or exploit their users? Most companies make it very easy to just skip the reading and agree to the terms with a simple click. While many user agreements are pretty innocuous, it’s difficult to tell which are and which aren’t without actually reading the service agreement.

So am I suggesting that we read every user agreement that crosses our path? That depends. An attorney would tell you that you should so that you know exactly to what you are agreeing. Clicking that checkbox or button and saying that you’ve read the terms and agree to them is legally binding. Gone are the days when your physical signature is required on a document to make it legally binding. If you are truly concerned about your legal rights then, yes, you probably should read all of them. What’s probably a more realistic option, however, is to read the agreements for companies and institutions with whom you do regular business. If you’re on Facebook a lot — sharing content, commenting or liking photos and statuses, or even just “lurking” — read their agreement then decide if you’re comfortable with their terms. If you shop on Amazon a lot or post a lot of reviews on their site, read their terms, too. Have a smart phone or tablet you can’t live without? Read the terms of use for those devices. If you choose to do regular business with someone, consider reading their terms; you might be surprised.

And with this background, you should know, too, that the Parent/Student Handbook for FRCS is online. Parents and students (grades 7-12) are asked to electronically acknowledge (sign) that they have read the handbook and agree to the terms laid out in it. We hope you’ll take the time to read the contents. There shouldn’t be any surprises that shock you, as we’ve worked to protect both the school and our families. It is a long document  but enrolling your children at FRCS is doing business with us. And while we are a non-profit, it’s important to know what is expected of you and your student as we continue our partnership together.

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