How internet contracts impact research: Content analysis of terms of service on consumer product websites

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Background: Companies use brand websites as a promotional tool to engage consumers on the web, which can increase product use. Given that some products are harmful to the health of consumers, it is important for marketing associated with these products to be subject to public health surveillance. However, terms of service (TOS) governing the use of brand website content may impede such important research. Objective: The aim of this study is to explore the TOS for brand websites with public health significance to assess possible legal and ethical challenges for conducting research on consumer product websites. Methods: Using Statista, we purposefully constructed a sample of 15 leading American tobacco, alcohol, psychiatric pharmaceutical, fast-food, and gun brands that have associated websites. We developed and implemented a structured coding system for the TOS on these websites and coded for the presence versus absence of different types of restriction that might impact the ability to conduct research. Results: All TOS stated that by accessing the website, users agreed to abide by the TOS (15/15, 100%). A total of 11 out of 15 (73%) websites had age restrictions in their TOS. All alcohol brand websites (5/15, 33%) required users to enter their age or date of birth before viewing website content. Both websites for tobacco brands (2/15, 13%) further required that users register and verify their age and identity to access any website content and agree that they use tobacco products. Only one website (1/15, 7%) allowed users to display, download, copy, distribute, and translate the website content as long as it was for personal and not commercial use. A total of 33% (5/15) of TOS unconditionally prohibited or put substantial restrictions on all of these activities and/or failed to specify if they were allowed or prohibited. Moreover, 87% (13/15) of TOS indicated that website access could be restricted at any time. A total of 73% (11/15) of websites specified that violating TOS could result in deleting user content from the website, revoking access by having the user’s Internet Protocol address blocked, terminating log-in credentials, or enforcing legal action resulting in civil or criminal penalties. Conclusions: TOS create complications for public health surveillance related to e-marketing on brand websites. Recent court opinions have reduced the risk of federal criminal charges for violating TOS on public websites, but this risk remains unclear for private websites. The public health community needs to establish standards to guide and protect researchers from the possibility of legal repercussions related to such efforts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere23579
JournalJMIR Public Health and Surveillance
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2020


  • Contracts
  • Ethics
  • Internet
  • Jurisprudence
  • Marketing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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