Each site is scored out of 100, with points allocated equally between four categories: Data Use, Data Disclosure, Amendment & Termination, and Miscellaneous. Although scoring necessarily involves the exercise of some discretion, we try to be as clear as we can about the criteria and we explain on each review page the reasons for the score we have awarded.
When you post a status update on Facebook or upload a photo to Flickr, you need to grant those companies certain rights to your content. For example, Flickr needs the right not only to display your photo on its site, but also to produce a thumbnail for its search results page. This means it needs the right to copy your file and modify it. When we consider everything that sites like Flickr need to be able to do to your content for their services to work properly, the set of rights that need to be granted is considerable.
However, many terms of service provisions go too far. They frequently allow the site to use your content for purposes which have no connection to the use you intended. And perhaps most worryingly, they often allow the site to transfer and sub-license your content to third parties without your consent. We look at how far each agreement grants rights beyond what is necessary for the site to function. We also take into account what data each site gathers and for how long that data is stored.
- What data does the site collect?
- What can the site do with content you post?
- Does the site get more rights to your content than it needs?
When your data can be disclosed
The terms of all of the sites surveyed allow them to disclose your information in certain circumstances. In this sub-category, we take into account the breadth of these disclosure provisions.
Transparency regarding disclosure
Sites also earn points for telling users that their information has been requested by the government, for publishing statistics about government requests, and for resisting excessively broad requests. For much of the data and analysis, we rely on the EFF’s excellent report, "When the Government Comes Knocking, Who Has Your Back?".
- When can the site disclose your information to others?
- Does it tell you if the government wants your data?
- Is it transparent about government requests?
Amendment & Termination
Web sites need to be able to change their terms of service. Sites score higher in this sub-category if they give users advanced notice of proposed changes by means that are likely to be effective.
Terms of service also need to contain a provision dealing with termination. Ideally, a site should only be able to terminate the agreement and close your account if you’ve violated the terms of service. Most of the sites surveyed, however, can terminate at any time and for any reason. In addition to the reasonableness of the termination right itself, in this category we also take into account what happens to your data in the event of termination. Are you guaranteed to be able to export your data and take it to another service?
- Does the site give you notice when it changes its terms?
- Under what circumstances can your account be terminated?
- Does the site let you take your data to another service?
In this category, we take account of anything specific to the particular site and its terms of service that should be reflected in its score. For example, did you know that if you wrongly post something in the wrong category on Craigslist, you could owe that company $25? Or that you violate the Facebook terms of service every time you tag a friend in a photo without their prior consent? If a site’s terms of service contains any non-standard provisions that raise concerns for users, we use this category to adjust its score.
Unlike the other categories, each site starts with 20 points this category and can lose or gain points for miscellaneous provisions that are bad or good for users, respectively.
- What else should you know about the site's legal agreements?