Interning at Harvard

by on under projects
3 minute read

Yup, via a chain of events I have landed an internship at The Berkman Center, a center within the Harvard Law School. Starting June 1st I will be developing TermsWatch, a web service that will provide notification of updates to, and plain English explanations of, those Terms of Use and Terms of Service agreements (Terms) that every website and piece of software makes you consent to.

Berkman Logo

The whole thing started back in February when Facebook updated its Terms of Use. The update occurred on February 4th, but nobody noticed the changes until the 15th (keep in mind that Facebook has around 175 million active users.)

Furthermore, Facebook's Terms of Use included an implied consent clause regarding changes. As many as 175 million users consented to the February 4th changes completely unaware that they were consenting to anything or that any change had occurred. This lack of notice presented an obvious problem, so I began to think about a program that would monitor Facebook's Terms of Use and alert individuals when a change was detected.

Before I could begin working on the program Facebook implemented its new, democratic process for updating its Terms (now called the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.) Satisfied that notice was now being given, I joined many other Facebook users in commenting on the proposed Rights and Responsibilities. While it was great that users were given a voice in the process, it also became clear that most of us (myself included) have no idea what a lot of the language means in the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, or why it needs to be included. One particular clause angered and disturbed a lot of users by allowing Facebook the right to transfer and sublicense its ability to reproduce and modify users' content. Fortunately, a number of individuals were able to explain why such a clause is required (so Facebook can allow third party applications to access and use its users' data.) Still, it became obvious that the dense legalese of the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities is too difficult for most (aside from experts and professionals in law) to read and understand.

It was about this time that Google started the application process for its Summer of Code. At first I scanned through the list of project ideas related to technology and society (my emerging area of interest,) but after a while I thought it would be neat to work on a generalized version of the program I had thought of in February that would monitor a site's (or software provider's) Terms for changes. I also thought about the difficulty of reading Terms and decided that the program would be much more useful if it included a way for legal experts to attach plain English explanations to the Terms. With all this in mind I wrote an application for the Summer of Code.

All Summer of Code programs need to be written for one of the available mentoring organizations. Since this program appeared to be a perfect fit for it, I applied with the Berkman Center as my mentor. Since I was part of last year's Summer of Code, I figured I would easily be part of this year's, so I sat back and waited for the good word. Less than four days after the submission deadline I got the not so good word that my application was considered ineligible. But, no sooner had I found out about the ineligibility than I received an email from the Berkman Center; they loved the idea and they asked me to apply to their internship program and spend the summer in Cambridge. Well, I couldn't say no to that, so I applied. The process went smoothly, I was accepted, and now I am starting to pack, because I have to move in less than two weeks.

Berkman Center
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