Title: The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services

Authors: Jonathan A. Obar and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch

Published in: Information, Communication, and Society


This paper addresses ‘the biggest lie on the internet’ with an empirical investigation of privacy policy (PP) and terms of service (TOS) policy reading behavior. An experimental survey (N=543) assessed the extent to which individuals ignored PP and TOS when joining a fictitious social networking service, NameDrop. Results reveal 74% skipped PP, selecting the ‘quick join’ clickwrap. Average adult reading speed (250-280 words per minute), suggests PP should have taken 29-32 minutes and TOS 15-17 minutes to read. For those that didn’t select the clickwrap, average PP reading time was 73 seconds. All participants were presented the TOS and had an average reading time of 51 seconds. Most participants agreed to the policies, 97% to PP and 93% to TOS, with decliners reading PP 30 seconds longer and TOS 90 seconds longer. A regression analysis identifies information overload as a significant negative predictor of reading TOS upon signup, when TOS changes, and when PP changes. Qualitative findings suggest that participants view policies as nuisance, ignoring them to pursue the ends of digital production, without being inhibited by the means. Implications are revealed as 98% missed NameDrop TOS ‘gotcha clauses’ about data sharing with the NSA and employers, and about providing a first-born child as payment for SNS access.

Note: Photographs in the NameDrop image are replacements similar to those from the original. Photo credits and background image from anyaberkut, Harbucks, Kuzma, NADOFOTOS, Voyagerix, and zdenkam.