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TOSback: Keeping tabs on the Web’s fine print

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Fri, Jun 5, 2009 at 4:01 pm

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Among the most frustrating things about online services and Internet companies are the "terms of service" policies governing how the businessses interact with you and use your personal information.

Internet companies claim users give informed consent. Instead the policies are usually written in dense legalese, are often not seen by Web users and are changed frequently by the companies without notification.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is doing something to fight back. They’ve just announced the launch of a terms of service tracker called TOSBack to monitor changes in policy on the Internet’s biggest 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," EFF said in the announcement.

EFF Senior Staff Attorney Fred von Lohmann explains:

"Some changes to terms of service are good for consumers, and some are bad. But Internet users are increasingly trusting websites with everything from their photos to their ‘friends lists’ to their calendar — and sometimes even their medical information. TOSBack will help consumers flag changes in the websites they use every day and trust with their personal information."

It should help consumers control what’s done with their data.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 350 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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