The TLDR Act: Mandatory Infrastructure for a Transparent, Consumer-Centric Internet

Anna Lenhart is a Policy Fellow at the Institute for Data Democracy and Politics at George Washington University. You previously served as a technology policy adviser in the US House of Representatives.

Today, Representative Lori Trahan (D-MA), Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Senator Ben Ray Lujn (D-NM) reintroduced the Labeling, Design, and Readability Terms of Service Act (TLDR).. Put simply, the bill requires commercial websites and mobile apps to create summary statements of terms of service.

Many will read TLDR coverage and think,great bill title, but all it does is set up a disclosure and consent regime for consumers. As someone who advised an earlier version of this bill while serving as an assistant to Rep. Trahan, I want to challenge the tech policy community to read a little closer and consider the implications beyond data transparency, including transparency of algorithms and insights for online safety and research.

First, TLDR focuses on the readability of terms of service. This includes requirements for a summary statement for privacy policies, attribution clauses for content creators (moral rights), and class action waivers, all of which a user must agree to before using a service. Also, with the enactment of Article 14 in the EU Digital Services Act, terms of service can start to include more details that affect consumers, lawyers and regulators: content moderation policies, details on how complaints are handled and protections that websites have in place for children. This is relevant information, but only if it can be easily located, analyzed and scraped.

That’s why section 2(e) might be the most exciting part of the bill. Section 2(e) directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to use its regulatory authority to require tags next to key clauses in online terms of service via an interactive data standard such as XML.

The bill’s legal language was inspired by the Securities and Exchange Commissions 21st Century Disclosure Initiative, now enshrined in law, which made financial information more structured and machine-readable. I know that a machine-readable web standard doesn’t sound groundbreaking, and indeed, the impact will only be clear after the FTC completes its regulatory process (probably with input from international web standards bodies), but there’s there is considerable potential for this applicable standard to empower civil society and researchers to build tools for consumers. Examples included:

  • Web developers could more easily build browser extensions that indicate by color or icon if a particular type of data (example: audio) is being collected by a website, or build interfaces that help users get personalized summaries of terms before to press Accept.
  • Open Terms Archive, a project incubated within the French Ambassador’s Office for Digital Affairs, has created a standard approach for voluntarily marking contract terms on websites. This allows the organization to track important changes that companies might otherwise hope to go unnoticed. Open Terms Archive documentation is used by partners such as Unread Terms of Service, to create a set of score cards for companies’ privacy policies. An interactive data format would have the potential to greatly reduce the amount of time Open Terms Archive volunteers spend organizing website terms and expand the number of services the organization could cover.
  • Terms We Serve, a project led by Bogdana Rakova, Megan Ma and Renee Shelby explored how terms of service contribute to algorithmic damage through information asymmetries. They are exploring ways in which terms of service could be shaped through participatory mechanisms. An interactive data format could make it easier for their project to compare existing terms with co-constructed user agreements or create browser extensions that introduce friction (slow/blocked access) to services that conflict with an individual’s or of a community.
  • Consumer groups could more easily maintain tables comparing consumer practices across platforms in a specific service (How do Ubers terms compare to Lyfts? Instagrams to TikToks? Duck Duck Gos to Googles?) in a side-by-side graph which can be updated in real time, encouraging a race for the data protection summit (may be too optimistic in the absence of antitrust reform, but imagine)

TLDR is framed as a bill to provide more information to consumers, and that’s certainly true. But it could also be useful to academics and civil society. To be clear, the text of the bill does not direct the FTC to implement the designs or user interfaces described above, it simply puts the rule of law behind requiring websites to use a machine-readable standard that makes designs like those listed above (and so many others) possible, or at least more impactful.

This bill doesn’t address all the threats posed by tech companies today, but it does solve a real problem that will only get more challenging as applications like generative AI enter our daily lives and challenge notions of human autonomy.

There is no such thing as a perfect bill, especially when first introduced. But if you are an academic or work on technology policy issues in civil society and could use structured terms of service to develop new insights, I challenge you to look beyond the press coverage and engage in the conversation about this bill not as a law on privacy but as a pathway to consumer understanding and independent oversight of the digital services that have such a significant impact on our lives.

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