UK WiFi Company Uses Overlong TOS To Trick Hotspot Users Into Cleaning Toilets, Hugging Stray Cats

from the sign-your-life-away dept

So we’ve talked for years about how overlong terms of service contracts that nobody reads are used to eliminate your rights in numerous ways. That includes stripping away your legal rights and forcing you to engage in binding arbitration, which results in the company-employed arbitrator ruling in their employer’s favor a vast majority of the time. In fact Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, recently cited these overlong and misleading contracts as one of the biggest threats to the health and utility of his invention.

Every so often we’ll see a company conduct an experiment to demonstrate the stupidity of long-normalized behavior, like the company in 2010 that got users to sign off on selling their soul. Taking a cue out of that playbook, UK WiFi hotspot operator Purple recently did something similar, burying a provision in their terms of service requiring that customers engage in 1,000 hours of menial labor if they wanted to access the internet.

Purple currently provides hotspot connectivity to Legoland, Outback Steakhouse and Pizza Express, and stated in a blog post that they provided patrons with a wonderful array of possibilities in terms of how to pay down their community service time, including:

  • Cleansing local parks of animal waste
  • Providing hugs to stray cats and dogs
  • Manually relieving sewer blockages
  • Cleaning portable lavatories at local festivals and events
  • Painting snail shells to brighten up their existence
  • Scraping chewing gum off the streets
  • The company says it ultimately found that over 22,000 users blindly signed off on the requirement during the two week period during which the experiment was conducted. It should go without saying that they won’t be enforcing the rules, but wanted to simply get a little free press while highlighting the stupidity of overlong TOS. Impressively, they note that during the two-week trial, just one user actually noticed what he was signing off on:

    “Don?t worry, we aren?t going to round up these individuals and ask them to don their rubber gloves and repay the community debt. The real reason behind our experiment is to highlight the lack of consumer awareness when signing up to use free WiFi. All users were given the chance to flag up the questionable clause in return for a prize, but remarkably only one individual, which is 0.000045% of all WiFi users throughout the whole two-weeks, managed to spot it.”

    While these pranks go a long way in highlighting the problem, there’s few if any real efforts to actually do much of anything about it. We desperately need simpler, cleaner terms of service updated for the digital age, but since companies adore using these lengthy, confusing contracts to protect themselves, hamstring your product ownership rights and make additional revenue, nothing much ever changes.

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    Companies: purple

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    Comments on “UK WiFi Company Uses Overlong TOS To Trick Hotspot Users Into Cleaning Toilets, Hugging Stray Cats”

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    26 Comments
    David says:

    Hardly a new idea.

    People just sign whatever. I mean, there has been an Internet subscription trap fad for a while until legislators stepped in and made it harder for stupid people to agree to atrocious conditions without looking at them.

    Microsoft’s Windows 10 privacy agreement runs over 20 pages. Don’t tell me that a significant fraction of "agreeing" people actually read this through.

    Basically, those agreements are used to get back into the lawless territory of "you don’t know what you are getting into", just with "and it’s your own fault, prrbrbrbrbblll!" on top.

    These "agreements" are not about getting you to agree to anything but about subjugating you. Of course, they usually come with binding arbitration.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Even Top Judges

    Maybe someone can help me out with the name, but I remember a story about one of the US Supreme Court judges being asked what he did with these things in his personal life and he replied that he didn’t bother to read them. Of course if you’re a Supreme Court judge you probably get special treatment and don’t have to worry about it. Life is different for commoners.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Problems with "Highlighting" the Problem

    I understand why they didn’t force people to go through with it, but in a way it might be better if they did.

    Right now their actions come off as a joke. "Oh, we got you. Think about it just a bit more next time." And when that happens, people kind of smile about it and move on.

    But the reality is that there’s been some success in the past suggesting that the TOS might be legally enforceable. As it stands, most newsites are going to say "yeah, that’s a problem," and then just move on. Most consumers are going to laugh and then forget about it.

    If they had actually rounded up a bunch of people and forced them to clean a sidewalk, as unjustifiable and cruel as it might be, somebody in Congress would be talking about this right now.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Re: Problems with "Highlighting" the Problem

    There’s UK-specific law that pre-dates any EU law. And, mentioning judges, UK judges seem to have slightly greater scope for applying common sense over rigid enforcement of rules compared to their US counterparts.

    I guess the question is “to what extent should it put users off?” You get sellers on eBay who put stuff in their listings like “sold as seen” and “buyer responsible for postal losses.” Those meet neither eBay’s T&Cs nor UK law. I try to avoid such eBay sellers because they’re either abusive or stupid, and dealing them could be a lot of hassle. But, if they’re the only game in town, I have bought from such sellers knowing that, if something does go wrong, eBay, PayPal, my credit card issuer or the county court would make it right.

    Daydream says:

    The world needs a reverse-EULA.

    One where the user of a product says ‘yes, I’ll buy a license for this on the following terms, blah blah blah blah blah…if you’re willing to sell, click confirm.’

    I wonder if anyone has actually done this? Composed a beginning-supplier license agreement (or BSLA for short) and sent it off via email to a company who’s product they’re interested in buying?

    Christenson says:

    Long TOS = Fraud IOW

    A long, unreadable TOS that is unrelated in length to the effort in the transaction, and without an *accurate* summary at the front is basically fraud, and we should call it that. (Otherwise, click *here*, you owe me 10x whatever you own, let’s go to court!).

    My fellow americans may have noticed there’s a black box with the significant terms in basically every credit card offer that fills their mailbox. That’s there because the law *finally* caught up with credit card companies writing TOS that no one would read.

    Part two of this is to take experiments like these to court when challenging a long TOS as totally unenforceable.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    The TOS probably includes several statements about what sort of deep shit you are in if you share your password with anyone – like it’s a felony or something. Can one law compel you to break a second law? And if you do, are you then a criminal? It is becoming very difficult to go thru one day without breaking any laws, most of them you are unaware of.

    John85851 (profile) says:

    Nice story, but still no solution

    On the other hand, what can a person do? They sit down at the pizza restaurant, sees that there’s free Wifi, sees a TOS, clicks OK, and uses the free Wifi.
    Is anyone really going to read the TOS? And if they do read it, I doubt anyone will think “Hey, I don’t want to hug a dog. This Wifi isn’t for me”!

    In other words, this is a nice story, but it still doesn’t address whether a click-through TOS is a legally binding contract. Sure, the company could argue that hugging a dog is a small price for getting free Wifi, but still.

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