“Help! I’m stuck in a terms and conditions factory. Please accept the terms and conditions to release me.”
This disclaimer from hell is just one of the 29 awaiting you in “Terms and Conditions Apply,” a new project meant to gamify the frustrating experience of trying to opt-out of tracking and ad-targeting across the web. It’s the brainchild of The Guardian and technologist Jonathan Plackett, who said he conceived the game as a way to “expose some of the dark patterns” that websites regularly use when tricking us into giving up our personal data.
At least on its face, the game’s goal is pretty simple: there’s a faceless baddie named EVIL CORP that will pull every trick in the book (and then some) in order to get you to agree to give up your digital data. Your job is to say no to any notification prompts, decline any cookies the Corp tries to drop on you, and turn down any terms of service agreements that get thrown your way.
Needless to say, it gets really hard, really quick. When Evil Corp asks if you agree to the terms and conditions, suddenly the “no” button is written in Klingon, or gets buried under a slew of confusing drop-down menus. A few of the questions feature “yes” and “no” toggles that flip-flop whenever you try clicking on them. Alex Bellos — The Guardian’s resident puzzle maker that teamed up with Plackett on the project — actually posted the solutions for three of these prompts if you want a taste for how difficult some of them are.
While the bulk of these questions might be over the top, there are a few that hardly exaggerate the sort of dark patterns that sites are caught using more and more. Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation teamed up with a slew of other tech advocates and policy researchers to roll out the first-ever tipline where folks can report these sorts of shady tactics as they’re spotted across the web. Hopefully, the ones that get reported are a bit less devious than the ones Plackett’s come up with.