An Honor Code Instead of Terms of Service
By Alex Zorach, April 13th, 2009
Merit Exchange has taken a novel approach to social networking, community building, and practical and legal issues in its choice to embrace an honor code in place of the typical "terms of service" used by most websites.
Most websites where users log on with individual accounts have lengthy "terms of service" (TOS), pages of legalese that few people actually read. Facebook's TOS have 6866 words1, myspace's 38682, craigslist 4637 words3. Having long terms that no one reads places the burden of enforcement on the website administrators, who face the tradeoff of expending considerable resources policing a userbase ignorant of the TOS, or allowing the TOS to go unenforced. Google's TOS read: "It is important that you take the time to read them carefully."4 But merely asserting that users should or must read the terms does little to ensure that users will read or understand them, and also does not ensure that they will hold up in court. Attorneys have argued that some aspects of TOS would not hold up in court, such as overreaching claims of ownership of user-submitted material.5 Communication is also essential to enforcing TOS. Google lost a court case after repeatedly failing to provide a user with explanation of how he had violated the TOS, even though the terms stated that Google reserved the right to terminate an account without explanation.6
Merit Exchange's approach:
Merit Exchange intends to set itself apart from other online networking communities by creating a culture of trust, sincerity, and understanding in every aspect of the website and community. Rather than have a "terms of service", Merit Exchange has an honor code. The honor code is broken into short paragraphs written in plain English which users read and agree to one-by-one. Users wanting more information can read documentation explaining the rationale behind each term. One of the terms of the honor code is the requirement that the user notifies Merit Exchange upon learning that any other user has violated the honor code.
The honor code of Merit Exchange shares similarities with honor codes of colleges and universities. Such academic honor codes and their effects on behavior have been extensively studied. Students cheat less often at schools that have honor codes and a culture of integrity.7 Such student honor codes have also been proposed and used as a tool for teaching professional ethics, relating such honor codes to the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct (for accountants).8
The honor code of Merit Exchange is also phrased positively rather than negatively as much as possible. Many "terms of service" outline a long list of activities and actions that are prohibited, without explaining to users how to use the site. People tend to be put off by negativity, and phrasing things positively is often more likely to get positive results. The honor code is intended to be a model of how members are to conduct themselves on the website, not just a set of rules outlining what is prohibited.
In addition to making the honor code concise and readable, Merit Exchange integrates links to and discussion of the honor code into every aspect of the site. The help documentation explains how the use of the site's features fit into the honor code, and processes on the site such as accepting merits as payment or inviting new members are highlighted with guidelines of how these processes are to be used in accordance with the honor code. Lastly, Merit Exchange provides forums for discussing the honor code, with the viewpoint that it will be continually evolving to better suit the needs of the community.
By making the honor code readable, positive, integrated into the site, and responsive to the community, we intend to keep the honor code proactive rather than reactive. Although the honor code is legally binding just like the terms of service of a website, this legal role is not the code's primary purpose. Its primarily purpose is to guide users and encourage honesty and respect, behavior that maintains the integrity of the community as a whole.