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terms of service (ToS)

Terms of service (ToS) is a type of document stating details about what a service provider is responsible for as well as user obligations that must be adhered to for continuation of the service. Users that don’t follow the rules specified in a ToS are subject to termination. Many websites and applications publish their terms of service. 

Terms of service should include user rights and responsibilities. The ToS should also be transparent about all activities of the service that have significance for users, such as details of what the service does with user data as well as how the service maintains user privacy and security.

A ToS can specify what users can expect from the service so they cannot claim ignorance about something that they later object to. Similarly, specifying behaviors that will not be tolerated makes it easier for a service provider to get rid of problematic users, who otherwise might claim that they were unfairly terminated. Removing someone from a service that provides a channel to an audience is sometimes referred to as deplatforming.

Typically, ToS are presented to users for inspection, often in a pop-up, but the service provider may not require users to acknowledge having read them. In this case, continued use of the service is considered to constitute agreement to the terms. Even in cases where the user must claim to have read the terms of service, however, they frequently don’t because the documents tend to be long, and relevant details may not be prominently featured.

User rights groups recommend making terms of service more easily readable. One such initiative, ToS;DR, breaks down ToS for prominent websites and services.

This was last updated in September 2018

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