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Transparency about the use of personal data

Posted on: Friday 11th of October 2013

CommonTerms is an innovative project that aims to create a standardised, simple language to make Terms and Conditions on websites about the use of personal data easier for consumers to understand. As well as the benefit to consumers such clarity provides an opportunity for businesses to engender trust through a reputation for transparency. The project is inspired by Creative Commons and coordinated by Metamatrix.

A recent report by Ipsos Mori for Deloitte found that on average website privacy policies take 25 minutes to read in full. CommonTerms will provide the key facts on one screen, making it easier for consumers to digest the information and understand how their information is being used. We spoke to project manager Pär Lannerö to find out more about the project.

1. What’s the big benefit your service is designed to offer?

We are not primarily offering a service, but rather a language that can be used by service providers to make Terms & Conditions more standardised and easier for consumers to understand.

There are many potential benefits to consumers as well as to service providers and other stakeholders. The current situation where 99% of users have no idea what’s in all those contracts they sign is troublesome because:

  • potential customers/users hesitate to convert/join if they do not understand and feel comfortable with the terms (OR have other good reasons to trust the seller/provider), leading to lower turnover for businesses and a digital divide where mindful/conscientious people are unable to use very useful digital services;
  • users cannot be expected to obey rules they are not aware of. This will lead to involuntary transgressions and delay the evolution of widely accepted codes of conduct;
  • in some jurisdictions, sellers/service providers expose themselves to liability by not ensuring a meeting of minds when establishing a contractual relationship;
  • society as a whole will experience a decline in the respect for contracts if the online generation is habituated to ignore terms;
  • Terms & Conditions documents used by online startups today usually have been copy-pasted from competitors, with poor adaptation, OR drafted by expensive lawyers. In either case, this is a burden on entrepreneurship; and
  • users who want to know the rules of the online game are forced to spend outrageous amounts of time digesting legalese. They shouldn’t need to do that.

For all of the above reasons the future existence of a set of common terms, with standardised formulations and presentation format, will be very beneficial.

2. What inspired/motivated you to start doing this?

Applying the concept “sustainability” on the Internet is my professional passion. The current non-sustainable situation for Terms & Conditions was the topic of a session I did with Thomas Bjelkeman of the AKVO foundation, during the Sweden Social Web Camp in 2010. CommonTerms was born out of that discussion. 

Of course, Creative Commons has been a great source of inspiration from the very start, even if their scope is more limited and we soon abandoned the idea of creating icons for all common terms.

3. How big is the market opportunity for your service?

We’re not really thinking in terms of a market. What’s the market opportunity for a language? We think it will be very useful for a lot of people, but so far we do not know if it will work well for the entire web or for certain segments of it (e.g. E-commerce, social media, startups, some jurisdictions, youth oriented services…)

4. What is the business model? How do you/will you earn your keep?

We have received funding several times from the Internet infrastructure foundation ( and are hoping for more funding by consumer protection groups and other institutions. At some point there will probably be commercial opportunities for consulting, certification etc., but we’re not there yet.

5. Where would you like to be in 3-5 years time?

  • Providing a high quality database of common terms, curated by team of lawyers from several different jurisdictions.
  • Established and funded infrastructure for maintaining and developing the database.
  • Several examples of successful websites using our format for making their terms more accessible.
  • Endorsement by respected standards organisation such as the w3c for example.
  • Interoperability and coordination with other related systems, such as TOS;DR ‘s crowdsourced ratings of terms.
  • Machine-readable terms.
  • Term summary presentation possible with major web browsers using standard user interface so that users will not need to search to find the term summary for a visited website.
  • Signs that websites start competing with each other by offering terms that are better for the consumer and are more easy to understand.

6. What obstacles will you need to overcome to get there?

  • Endurance (many projects in this area last for a few months, but a sustainable solution will take several years to establish).
  • Coordination across jurisdictions.
  • Possibly resistance from companies afraid of transparency.
  • Finding the best way to prioritise between terms: which ones deserve to be on the one-screen summary?
  • Managing the legal risk involved when you try to express anything complex in a simplified way.

7. Have you got any more general thoughts or views about the changing personal data landscape you would like to share?

Except for standardisation and machine readability, I think highly of the ideas put forward by Doc Searls and the VRM movement: users should not be forced to take or leave whatever vendors serve. Instead they should be on equal footing and be able to negotiate on those terms. Personal Data Stores should hold machine readable copies of every contract the user has ever accepted, and be able to give a warning if you are about to accept a common term you have not already accepted, or a not-so-common term!