Quick. Try to pronounce the title of this article in one breath at your first attempt.
This the longest title of this site. At least for now. After all, I’m never one to shrink from an honest challenge.
Let’s have a little bit of fun (or walking’ down the memory lane) with these scenes.
(The Cat In The Hat, 2003. Clips from YouTube)
(Bedazzled, 2000. Clips from YouTube)
Two scenes from two movies, but showing identical message. How many of us really understand what’s inside a contract (or any legal documents for that matter) and just blindly signed it at dotted lines (or as we currently live in this 21st century, clicked on ‘I Agree’ and continue)? Let’s be honest, how many of us the John and Jane Smith of the world who actually did digest through every legal documents of products and services that we bought or consumed? Is it because we’re too lazy? Is it because of our naivety and think no companies will jeopardise their reputation (and bottom line) by serving us a crappy stuff or doing something that’s detrimental to us in the long-run?
Or is it because the agreements usually filled with technical legal jargons that purposely makes us the average people hard to understand even the first few clauses, let alone the whole document? After all, those who come up with those word and sentences are lawyers and legal experts whom are paid by those companies to protect their interest, and they are not a graduates from the bottom of their class from some obscure, out-of-town college, right? So what are the odds that we can win arguments with them when we can’t even understand those agreements ourselves? So we just resorted to never questioned them, and with crossing fingers and hope that there won’t be a lawyer knocking our door in the morning to serve a legal notice.
My former lecturer (now a security researcher) used to say something like ‘you guys will just agreed and click ‘Yes’ to those end-user agreement even though there’s a clause inside it that stated ‘We reserve the right to install a virus and malware into your computers and rendered it useless’, right? And although he said that close to 20 years ago, when smartphones pretty much a non-existence, Nokia ruled the world and Blackberry’s phone is more like a giant pager with buttons than a proper mobile phone, he’s spot on with our behaviour. The behaviour of not actually knowing what we signed for (pretty much literally) and only went berserk when things gone south (remember Panama Papers thingy or Cambridge Analytica’s fiasco?), when it’s actually too late to do anything about it.
Legal Agreements – Why Is It So Confusing and Yet We Just Signed It?
Images shown are the screenshot of my phone (iPhone 4 SE, I think) of Apple’s Legal Notices and Software License Agreement. Let’s be honest, how many of us (iOS, Android or any smartphone users) were actually tried to read and understand those clauses BEFORE we click ‘I Agree’? In all honesty, I didn’t. And I’m willing to bet with my ridiculously low bank account balance that most of us didn’t and never went through all those clauses and words, line-by-line. After all, Apple (and Samsung, Xiaomi and Huawei) never actually forced us to buy their phones. It’s pretty much ‘This is what we offer (the phones), and this is our conditions (the agreement and terms). Take all or take none’. I mean, who in this world actually have time and patient to understand those clauses? I may even need a calculator to pronounce some of those words! Just give me the phone and let me have fun with it, confusing sentences be damned!
And how ironic, when you consider that the philosophy of Steve Jobs on developing an iPhone is based on simplicity and minimalist design, yet the agreement is anything but.
(Video excerpt from CNN/YouTube)
Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) clearly doesn’t seem amused with the current state of Facebook’s User Agreement. And as much my confidence and trust level is close to nil with any politicians, I think Senator Kennedy was spot on on this one. Facebook’s User Agreement is suck! And it’s not just Facebook. What seems to be a problem with them not being able to come up with simple English or a language that majority of people could understand. Has legal jargon has become a distinct language of its own? Does the legal experts live in a state where everyone speaks something called ‘Legal’? What’s wrong with having simple page where there’s a summary of those agreements like a simple diagram or bullet points like in Microsoft PowerPoint?
Some may say that those diagrams or bullet points are not practical and can lead to a confusion due to various interpretation by users. Really? Does the current practice of having 30,000 words in the agreement get things any better or less confusing? And if it’s getting things less confusing, why do we still need a lawyer to explain it to us or argue it on our behalf? Isn’t the purpose of getting clearer means we can understand it better ourselves, and no need or less involvement of external parties?
Big Data, Image Recognition and Machine Learning in Legal Tech – Will It Make Our Understanding of Agreements Better?
Remember the Panama Papers and Mossack Fonseca fiasco? The story of how a legal firm Mossack Fonseca helped their clients from some not-so-serious charges like dodging taxes to a serious ones like money laundering? We’re talking about 11.5 million files that need to be sorted out, recorded and investigated by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). We’re talking about huge trove of unstructured data, PDFs, images, emails, contacts and other God-know-what. We’re not talking about a low level drug smuggler from Colombia, but the who’s who of international political, sports and business figures. We’re talking about certain politicians using some tax shelter to
avoid reduce their own tax obligation. Legal? Probably. Dubious? Absolutely.
Suddenly the User Agreement and Legal Notices arguments mentioned above seems more and more like a bedtime stories that we read to our kids when they want to sleep. Short, non-dramatic and you can finish it in five minutes.
And how ICIJ managed to do this?
Legal tech. Specifically, an electronic-discovery (e-discovery) software from a company called Nuix that uses image and object recognition, machine learning and big data to sift through tons of structured, semi-structured and unstructured data. And seems like the program does deliver as promised. To an extent that it uses primarily to sift through the Mossack Fonseca’s newly-found ‘treasure’. It was so efficient and beneficial to ICIJ it is donated to ICIJ specifically to unravel more and more data related to Panama Papers. Whether it’s a clever marketing trick or outright solidarity to fight crime or injustice, it’s not up to me to decide. But it obviously boost Nuix profile.
Now the question is when can we have similar or better software program that can do things like what Nuix did so that we can sift through our Legal Notice and User Agreement? How soon before we can just feed any agreement (paper-based or otherwise) to a program and spit out a red flag that i.e the manufacturer or OS provider reserves the right to track the location of their users even though the location setting is turned off or logging in into a browser without their users’ consent (in both cases, I’m looking at you Google)? So that we actually know what’s hidden or real meaning in each of those clauses without having to second-guess ourselves or run to find the most reliable and trusted lawyers. If any startups wonder whether we have enough market for this kind of program, just count how may User Agreements and Legal Notice that we have to live throughout our lives. With the proliferation of more and more smart devices and IOTs, we might end up sifting through more legal agreements (and if we’re not prepared, a legal fiasco) than we can already fathom. Good news for lawyers, not so for the rest of us.
Maybe Nuix (or some other companies like Palantir) will release their own version of e-Discovery. Maybe a paid version, maybe a freemium. But seems like Nuix already got a publicity from the Mossack Fonseca’s incident. And it’s good for them to take advantage of it and release similar program that’s simple enough that we can actually use.