A digital rights group has created an automatic system for tracking changes to website terms and conditions and privacy policies. The tool is designed to help users of websites to keep up to date with their rights and obligations.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the digital rights advocacy group behind TOSBack.org, the tool that allows web users to see who is changing what. The EFF said that it created the site because many website users are ignorant of how much their behaviour is controlled by such policies.
"Terms of service form the foundation of your relationship with social networking sites, online businesses, and other internet communities, but most people become aware of these terms only when there's a problem," said the group's activism and technology manager Tim Jones. "We created TOSBack to help consumers monitor terms of service for the websites they use everyday, and show how the terms change over time."
Users can subscribe to an RSS feed which will automatically update them when there is a change to the terms and conditions of one of the organisations monitored. The list of site which are monitored includes Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Craigslist, Data.gov, DoubleClick, EBay, GoDaddy, Google, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube.
The service compares the old and the new versions of policies side by side, highlighting deleted passages in blue and added passages in yellow. It tracks any changes to the policies, so the Facebook change noted last week was simply a change of address for contacting the site.
A number of controversies have developed over popular websites' terms and conditions, particularly those of social networking sites. MySpace attracted the wrath of the musical community in 2006 when changes to its terms and conditions seemed to assert intellectual property rights over music made and posted by site users.
Earlier this year Facebook was forced into a terms and conditions climb-down when it reversed a change that seemed to grant it control over users' data forever.
"Some changes to terms of service are good for consumers, and some are bad," said EFF senior staff attorney Fred von Lohmann. "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."