EFF to track terms of service changes ... so you don't have to

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Most Internet users read Web site terms of service agreements about as often than they peruse car owner's manuals, which is to say only when it smells like something is burning.

Yet ToS changes happen all the time, those changes are often important, and, they can cause a stink, as Facebook and its faithful learned recently when the company proposed alterations to its terms that were perceived as Facebook helping itself to the pictures and writings of members. Much complaining and backpedaling ensued before order was restored.

In an effort that may actually accelerate such flare-ups in the future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation today announced that it has begun tracking ToS changes and making those findings available on a special Web site.

From the EFF press release:

"Terms of Service" policies on websites define how Internet businesses interact with you and use your personal information.  But most web users don't read these policies -- or understand that the terms are constantly changing.  To track these ever-evolving documents, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is launching "TOSBack": a "terms of service" tracker for Facebook, Google, eBay, and other major websites.

At www.TOSBack.org, you can see a real-time feed of changes and updates to more than three dozen polices from the Internet's most popular online services.  Clicking on an update brings you to a side-by-side before-and-after comparison, highlighting what has been removed from the policy and what has been added.

The EFF service has just begun adding baseline ToS documents -- 44 sites so far -- and identifying initial changes.

Some of the changes would appear to be trivial, such as this one from Facebook that apparently notes nothing but a change in contact information (and who uses snail-mail addresses anymore?).

But others are clearly more meaningful, such as this one flagged from the ToS of domain name registrar GoDaddy.com, adding the language: "You acknowledge and agree a copy of the customer contact data You provide will be used as the initial domain contact data and made public in the WHOIS database." And this from eBay that adds several paragraphs of new verbiage covering a buyer's obligations when alleging receipt of a fraudulent item.

The site's homepage includes a "highlighted policies" box, which presumably will help pull some of the nuggets from what promises to quickly become an avalanche of change notices. Here's the RSS feed.

As for the technology behind the site: "TOSBack is powered by PHP/MySQL. The code is open-source - We'll be posting a tarball of it here shortly. Special thanks to the developers of PHPWiki and Drupal, whose diff engine was gratefully adapted for use in TOSBack."

It will be interesting to see if the site proves useful ... or just gets tucked back into the glove compartment.

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