Smoke-Filled Room

This story about Zoom’s updated Terms and Conditions is currently getting a lot of media coverage. In a nutshell: it establishes that the company has the right to collect customer data to train Zoom’s forthcoming artificial intelligence features.

I think that is going to be the case in many software user agreements, if such language is not in them already. My opinion is that part of the problem with the creeping privacy invasions is that very few people, or organizations, actually read the agreements before clicking “OK.”

Earlier in my career, I used to get heckled by my boss for reading the user agreements when I did software installs and upgrades. “I only have to read it once, then I can upgrade all of the machines,” was my response.

In about 1995, that same company bought a software package with intent of launching a database-publishing model for our largest client. My boss handed me the box containing the install disks, and user guide, then issued a Captain Piccard-like “Make it so,” directive.

The box contained a fairly small instruction manual, and a fairly voluminous user agreement.

I’d only been in the office a few minutes that morning, but I kept getting paged for tech support requests on the overhead speaker. I looked at the contents of the software box, thinking “I ain’t got time for this shit!”

As I browsed at the documents, I’d heard: “Scott Smith, dial 668…” “….dial 772….” “….dial 431…” so it was kind of a normal day. I really DID NOT have time to read the Terms and Conditions, install the software, and starting building variable-data publishing templates.

One thing that struck me about the software, was the price tag– over $2,000 (again this was in 1995). “This piece of shit costs more than Photoshop,” I muttered to myself.

The dollar amount alone made this seem like a high-stakes situation, thus I went upstairs to the newly-hired Corporate Counsel. I didn’t know him, and only had a few passing hallway encounters. He always had a cigarette in his hand, and seemed to be chronically over-cafiennated.

I gently knocked on his open door. On his desk, were a cup full of sharpened, point-side-up pencils, and a large ash tray with a colossal mound of cigarette butts, that I remember looked like this:

Closeup shot of a many cigarette butts, most with light brown filter papers, the filters is are yellow-to-brown
What Desktops Looked Like In The 20th Century

He looked up and said “Can I help you?” though his delivery felt more like a “Kid, can’t you see I’m busy?!?”

I described why I had approached him, and showed him the user agreement. As he thumbed through it, I heard on the overhead speaker, “Scott Smith, dial 728. Scott Smith dial 728.” He looked up for a moment and flipped a few more pages.

He asked, “This is a software agreement, isn’t software your job?”

I responded “It’s a legal document about software, I don’t think that law is my job.”

I heard my name on the speaker again, a different extension this time. If he was going to claim, he didn’t have time to read it, I was going to make the same argument about myself (two pages on the speaker supported my case), then I’d double-down that I wasn’t properly qualified to approve the agreement.

He sighed and agreed then began reading the document. I responded to my support requests and returned later. He motioned for me to come in and said quietly, “Almost Done.”

He signed the user agreement and I thanked him then faxed it (yeah, I faxed it) to the software manufacturer. Later that week, I got some time to work with the software, and it was a hot, expensive, mess. We didn’t use it, and abandoned the database-publishing endeavor, primarily for reasons not all technology-related.

I don’t think I’ve read (I mean really read) an agreement in the past 20 years. I have certainly not escalated the matter to a corporate counsel.

Do you read the user agreements? Does anybody, in IT, or the Legal Department, read them in your organization?

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