Perhaps the most unpleasant thing I had to deal with in my previous job (or maybe the one before) was discovering that members of my student group were signing in for each other to whole course lectures. In many work contexts this would, of course, be a sackable offence. And as we dealt with the aftermath, one of the things I was saying was, "Think what signing your name means! Through signing your name you can get married, get divorced, take out a mortgage, guarantee a loan for other people, take on a job, agree to an operation, and much, much more. Never sign your name unless you are completely happy with what you are signing. And never, NEVER, sign for somebody else unless you have explicit permission to do so and are being very clear that that is what you are doing."
Similarly in my current job, I get documents brought to me to sign, either on my own behalf as head of teaching programmes or on behalf of the director in his absence. I make a point of reading what I'm brought, making sure I understand it, and sending it back either if I don't understand it or if there is a mistake or ambiguity. Apart from anything else, there is the possibility at some time in the future of being quizzed about a document I've signed if something goes wrong, it's up to me to take reasonable precautions to ensure that what I sign is all in order - which is, I suppose, why I've been asked to sign it in the first place.
Meanwhile, it is not unusual for me to turn on my laptop at the beginning of the working day and, as it is starting up, get told that there is an update to the software on the computer. And, as I'm installing it, up pops a screen which asks me to tick a box alongside a statement along the lines of, "I have read and agree to these terms and conditions."
Now, surely ticking that box is the electronic equivalent of signing my name? And if I'm saying that I wouldn't use a pen to sign a document I haven't read, then logic dictates that, before ticking the box I should indeed read the terms conditions of installing the software? Except that, if I go to the terms and conditions I find myself confronted with a massively long - maybe 50 sides of A4 - document written not so much in English as in legal-ese. So, not being a trained lawyer at all let alone one specialising in IT security, I could plough through the document, but in all likelihood would find either that it's stating the obvious, or that I don't understand it. I'm unlikely to spot the controversial parts, and I'm certainly not going to identify paragraphs which should be included but in fact are not. And remember, I'm trying to get going with my working day!
So, what do I do? I tick the box, stating that I have read the terms and conditions when in fact I have not. And that I agree to them which I don't, how can I if I don't know what they are? So, in practice, I make a distinction between signing my name and ticking these boxes, having already stated that there is no distinction. I contradict myself. I perjure myself.
There is the story, told here, of the British company Gamestation which, back in 2010, included in the terms and conditions of an online purchase the option to buy participants' immortal souls, with a UKP5 gift voucher offered to anybody who opted out of this clause. Only 12% of purchasers took this option, leading to the conclusion that 88% of purchasers did not read them. Have to say, 88% seems quite low to me!
So, all very amusing whilst making a serious point, but can I ask the bosses at Gamestation - what steps have you subsequently taken to try to ensure that people do read your terms and conditions? Very easy for you to blame the consumer, but if the terms and conditions are pretty well impenetrable, what do you expect them to do? Indeed, what do you do in your private lives faced with a similar situation?
One could take the cynical approach and say that it's in the interests of big companies that we should sign these statements without reading them, enabling them, should problems later arise, to say, "But we told you all about it." Which from one point of view is quite true, from another is complete nonsense, irresponsible and disingenuous.
If companies are seriously wanting us the computer-using public to engage with these documents, then I suggest that they are presented in the form in the first instance of summaries with a maximum of maybe 10 points, then with hyperlinks to an expanded version explaining each point in maybe a paragraph, with further hyperlinks getting to the full text. Would this work? I don't know, but it's a suggestion.
I would also say that I just love the idea of the computer-using public rising up and refusing to tick these boxes, therefore refusing these updates. From a different point of view I tend to the view that constant upgrades are a problem in themselves. Since most users of software like Word and Excel use only a minute proportion of the functionality, do we really need yet more functionality? It may make things more stable, it also renders perfectly good three year old hardware software obsolete, with updated software making demands which older hardware can't deliver.
But in practice organising such a campaign would be almost impossible, the target group is too diffuse and too preoccupied with other things to be able to organise in this way. So I'm not offering to try, sorry. Although if anybody would like to offer me a pension so that I can retire and devote myself to this cause full-time, I'd certainly consider it. But I would, of course, be reading the terms and conditions first before signing them.