PayPal has published a new set of terms and conditions, reserving the right to “robocall” and text you for marketing purposes. The digital payment processor isn't the only example of companies writing terms that some say allow them to ‘exploit’ user data and attempt to avoid the legal repercussions. 

Robocalls Expected

The new terms and conditions published by PayPal, as it moves towards separating from its parent company Ebay, are causing outrage among users.

PayPal reserves the right through these new terms to contact you, if you’re a customer, “at any telephone number that you have provided us or that we have otherwise obtained.” Many suggest that the payment processing service is over-stepping its boundaries, as PayPal offers users no opt-out option, except through closing their accounts altogether.

Yahoo Finance, however, points out that these same contacting rights were included in the Ebay terms and conditions as far back as 2012.

“[T]he robocalling language is not really new. It is derived from eBay's terms of service, which back in 2012 added the right to contact consumers at ‘any telephone number […] you provide to us or from which you place a call to us, or any telephone number at which we reasonably believe we may reach you.’”

Terms and Conditions May Apply

Unfavorable terms and conditions are certainly not new or unique in an age when companies can put a dollar value on the information they have accumulated on their users. Reporting on a new set of developer terms for the Apple App Store, the Guardian examined why the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) refused to sign up to an increasingly aggressive set of rules for those wanting to distribute apps to Apple products.

“[These new rules] include Apple’s bar on developers making public statements about the terms; its ban on reverse engineering or helping others reverse engineer iOS or its software development kit; its requirement that apps developed using that SDK be distributed through the App Store only; and clauses stressing that Apple must approve any bug fixes or security releases, and can remotely disable apps at any time.”

The evolution of corporate terms and conditions, from a light disclaimer outlining the limitations and responsibilities of the publisher, to the extensive signing over of user data, was the subject of the 2013 documentary film “Terms and Conditions May Apply.”

LinkedIn’s ‘Abysmal’ Terms

The film’s director Cullen Hoback spoke to The Next Web about the far-reaching terms and conditions he'd seen while researching the documentary, and focused particular attention on LinkedIn's pre-October 2014 terms sheet for their far-reaching claims on the rights they reserve.

“LinkedIn’s [terms and conditions are] abysmal. It’s the most over-reaching, ridiculous and shouldn’t be allowed to exist contract out there that I found,” stated Hoback.

A sample of the terms and conditions that Hoback found particularly worrying — while researching his film about the decline of privacy through corporations seeking to obtain intellectual rights over the data of their users — include the following:  

“You grant LinkedIn a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, assignable… right to us to copy, prepare derivative works of, distribute […] use and commercialize, in any way […] any information you provide […] to LinkedIn, including […] any user generated content, ideas, concepts, techniques or data to the services, you submit to LinkedIn, without any further consent, notice and/or compensation to you.”

Reserving the right to sell and use your intellectual property is certainly valuable for these social media giants. For a company like Twitter, some have estimated that a single active user is worth up US$110 to the company.

Cullen Hoback

Users Fight Back

It's not all doom and gloom, however. Although companies seem to consistently try to push the legal limits of how they can handle user data, they often quickly seek to clarify or modify their terms of use when challenged. In the case of LinkedIn, popular backlash against the right to “use and commercialize” led the company to soften its conditions in October 2014.

Likewise, Instagram was forced to revert to an earlier set of terms and conditions when its 2012 update led users to fear that the photography platform wanted to reserve the rights to sell their images.

With companies willing to back down when challenged by their user base over these controversial adjustments to their terms and conditions, Hoback suggests that profits aren’t the reason why companies pursue these types of catch-all legal contracts, stating:

“They’re not interested in taking stuff from you, they’re more interested in protecting themselves. Apple goes to the point of saying that you’re not allowed to use their technology for nuclear warfare. That’s how far they go.”

For PayPal, reserving the right to call and text you makes sense from a transaction validation point-of-view. Banks often make use of phone calls as a second form of authentication when transactions trigger suspicious behavior filters.

Indeed, backlash has been an important factor in the cases of LinkedIn and Instagram, where companies have softened their claims over users' digital rights. So for those who suspect that PayPal's demand for the right to contact them via phone comes from ulterior motives, the bad publicity from user complaints and petitions may often be enough to get companies to change their policies.