The Internet, as a concept, is an infinite democratic space where people can express themselves however they like.

The Internet, as most of us actually use it, is where we use proprietary tools from Google, Facebook, Apple, and a few other big companies — subject to a long list of terms and conditions that might prove disturbing, even appalling, if anyone ever bothered to read them.

Google, which owns the video service YouTube, splits ad revenues with the creators of popular clips. On Thursday , people who make lots of YouTube videos freaked out after being told, via e-mail, that videos deemed insufficiently “advertiser-friendly” had been demonetized. That is, clips featuring violence, foul language, or controversial themes would no longer, according to the e-mail, be eligible for advertising. YouTube creators, some of whom make their living off the site, cried censorship and started the hashtag #YouTubeIsOverParty.


In response, YouTube insisted that this wasn’t a new policy. The site had already been demonetizing certain videos, just not quite so explicitly.

Sorry, was that supposed to make people feel better?

In Internet life, it can’t be said often enough: As long as you’re relying on somebody else’s proprietary platform — to communicate with friends or make a living — you’re at the mercy of whichever terms the owner sets for you. Those terms are opaque and subject to change, and no one’s revising them for your benefit.

Recently, researchers Jonathan Obar, of York University in Toronto, and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, of the University of Connecticut, have been circulating a working paper called “The Biggest Lie on the Internet” — a reference to the checkbox next to the words “I agree to these terms and conditions.” They asked people to join a fictitious social networking site called NameDrop and showed participants a privacy policy and a terms-of-service disclosure.


Needless to say, virtually everyone breezed past those statements — despite gotcha clauses in which users unwittingly agreed to hand over their first-born children and let NameDrop share their information with National Security Agency spies.

Obar told National Public Radio late last month that reading all the new terms-and-conditions notifications for sites and services that users commonly use would take 40 minutes a day — every day. Here’s a sleeper ethical and legal issue for a few years from now: Should unilateral terms-of-service changes be enforceable if real human beings can’t possibly keep up with them?

I’m not suggesting that every change is nefarious. Buried in the
iPhone’s terms and conditions, which now run to 10 single-spaced pages, is language directing users not to use the device to control air traffic, run nuclear facilities, or develop chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. (Note to self: Cancel e-purchase of anthrax, gas centrifuges, and uranium hexafluoride.) That legal language didn’t appear in the earliest iPhone’s terms and conditions, and one shudders to think what prompted it.

Other provisions merely spell out things that users should be able to figure for themselves. Apple warns that some features may break, that real-life streets and ravines aren’t always where maps say they are, that unforeseen events may interfere with my enjoyment, that some problems may never be corrected. This isn’t a phone — this is life! Who knew such wisdom could be buried deep in a pile of legalese?


Still, many other terms-of-service statements conceal a lot of mischief — aggressive copyright claims to the content you generate, disclosures that your data may be sold to anyone, warnings that you can never delete your account. When you don’t read those statements, it’s easy to forget that “free” sites like Facebook make their money not by charging you, but by selling what they know about you. And if you spend $600 on a phone, should the manufacturer really be able to add sneaky new conditions after the fact? Real-life terms of service may not let the NSA cart off your firstborn child, but a little indignation is still in order.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.