Most software programs, and some websites, are subject to End User License Agreements (EULAs). EULAs are long and detailed and apparently written by lawyer-bots. Almost everybody agrees to them without even reading them. A EULA is a contract, but it’s not the result of a negotiation between the vendor and the user. The vendor writes the EULA, and the user can take it or leave it. Most users just accept EULAs without thinking.
This has led to any number of problems. For example, some EULAs give the software vendors permission to install spyware – and most users never realize they have granted that permission.
Why don’t users pay more attention to EULAs? Rational ignorance is one possibility – it may be that the cost of accepting a bad EULA every now and then is lower than the cost of actually reading EULAs and making careful decisions. If so, then a rational cost-minimizing user won’t read EULAs.
And there are a few oddballs who read EULAs. When these people find a particularly egregious provision, they spread the word. Occasionally the press will report on an extreme EULA. So rationally ignorant consumers get a little information about popular EULAs, and there is some pressure on vendors to keep their EULAs reasonable.
In domains where rational ignorance is common, tools often spring up to help people make decisions that are more rational and less ignorant. If it’s not worth your time to research your senator’s voting record, you can look at how he is rated by the Environmental Defense Fund or the NRA, or you can see who has endorsed him for reelection. None of these sources captures the nuances of an individual voting record. But if you’re not going to spend the time to examine that record, these crude tools can be valuable.
When it comes to EULAs, we don’t have these tools. So let’s create them. Let me suggest two useful tools.
The first tool is a service, provided via a website, that rates EULAs in the same way that political advocacy groups rate legislators. I’m not talking about a detailed explanation – which rationally ignorant users wouldn’t bother to read – but a simple one-dimensional rating, such as a grade on an A-to-F scale. Products whose EULAs get good scores might be allowed to display a trademarked “Our EULA got an A-” logo.
Naturally, reducing a complex EULA to a single rating is an oversimplification. But that’s exactly the point. Rationally ignorant users demand simplification, and if they don’t get it they’ll decide based on no information at all. The site could offer more details for users who want them. But let’s face it: most users don’t.
The second tool is a standardized template for writing EULAs, akin to the structure of Creative Commons licenses. You’d have some core EULA language, along with a set of modules that could be added at the vendor’s discretion. Standardized EULAs can be displayed concisely to the user, by listing the modules that are included. They could be expressed easily in machine-readable form, so various automated tools could be created.
The main benefit of standardization is that users could re-use what they had learned about past licenses, so that the cost of learning about a license could be amortized over more decisions. Standardization would also seem to benefit those companies who have more likable EULAs, since it would help users notice the substantive differences between the EULAs they see.
Will either of these things happen? I don’t know. But I would like to see somebody try them.