Online T&Cs longer than Shakespeare plays – who reads them?

by , Editor, Which? Computing Technology 23 March 2012
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
4 - 0
avatar

Google’s new privacy policy will dictate its terms of use across all of its platforms. It’s nice to see a site cutting down its terms and conditions, but others rival Shakespeare plays with their word counts.

Hamlet page

Google claims its all-in-one policy (covering search, YouTube, Picasa, Chrome and Android) makes matters simple for us, but the reality is that most users will never read the T&Cs themselves.

Google insists that having one policy to cover multiple products makes for a ‘simple and beautiful experience,’ but this hasn’t gone down well with legal experts, with one data regulator raising concerns that the new policy could be in breach of European data protection laws.

The reality of reading terms and conditions

Google’s new privacy policy is relatively trim by the standards of the terms and conditions we’ve seen from some of the major online players. It clocks in at 2,270 words – not a light read, but better than Facebook, iTunes or Paypal’s lengthy tomes.

However, if you combine this policy with Google’s general terms of use you’re looking at a document 4,099 words in length. Factor in the additional privacy policies for Google Chrome, Wallet and Books, and you’re staring at 10,640 words – the length of the average undergraduate dissertation. Is that something most users are likely to sit down and read?

According to a YouGov poll conducted by Big Brother Watch, only 12% of Google service users claim to have read the new privacy conditions, which have been available for a preview in the weeks leading up to their launch.

To read or not to read, that is the question

Paypal takes the biscuit, however, with a total word count for its T&Cs of 36,275 words (when you factor in its 9,204-word privacy policy, acceptable use policy, eBay shipping services policy and UK billing agreement terms).

To put that in context? It’s longer than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Apple iTunes isn’t much better. Some 2,456 words of privacy terms plus a further 17,516 of terms of use add up to 19,972 words of reading – longer than Macbeth.

Facebook’s 6,910 words of privacy policy and 4,285 words of terms of use add up to a ripping yarn some 11,195 words (around the same as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity).

On the shorter end of things, Twitter’s terms and privacy policy reaches just 4,445 words (about half the length of Roald Dahl’s The Twits). Social news site Reddit’s user agreement and privacy policy are together slightly longer at 5,706 words (the same as reading Grimms’  fairy tales Cinderella and Hansel & Gretel one after another).

T&Cs should be easier to read

Is it any surprise most internet users click ‘accept’ without reading the full terms and conditions, even when these cover all-important matters of privacy?

These days, T&Cs are thrown at you on screens designed to fit in the palm of your hand – the next Apple iOS update for iPhones will be downloadable directly from the device itself. Would you have scroll through iOS 5’s 13,366 word T&Cs on your phone?

Whether it’s down to the staggering word counts or complex legal jargon, it’s not really fair to expect users to read through terms and conditions in full before agreeing to use a service.

Personally, I’d like to see some headline terms and conditions brought to the fore and explained in approachable language before opting to use a service. If the terms are important enough to require fine print, then surely they ought to deserve clear print as well.

Does the length of online T&Cs put you off reading them?

Yes, if they're really long (74%, 484 Votes)

I never read them anyway (23%, 154 Votes)

No, I always read them (3%, 20 Votes)

Total Voters: 658

Loading ... Loading ...

36 comments

Add your comments

avatar

richard

Honestly – If I’m going to use a service very often (Like Pay Pal ) I read the Terms and conditions. If it is a one off and not expensive – I’d not bother,.

avatar

the energy badger

Like any contract you sign or agree to abide by, there will always be fine print and wordy, legal explanations to cover various eventualities or scenarios. In many instances these are not only beneficial in protecting the organisation offering the service, but also the rights of the customer/user.

Whilst there is a balance to be struck (and in theory, I believe the introduction of headline/summary T&Cs would be good), your suggestion poses many problems – what one person determines to be a ‘headline’, someone else could deem to be an irrelevance, and vice versa. Unless an independent body was appointed to specifically monitor and look at these T&Cs, it’s very difficult to implement on a wider scale.

One final thing (this isn’t a criticism by the way!) – if it was easy enough to reduce the length of online T&Cs, then wouldn’t the combined word total of the Which? Conversation Privacy Policy and T&Cs, in addition to the Which? Privacy Policy, be less than 3,300 words? The style of writing isn’t really ‘legal jargon’ but it’s still a fair amount of reading to do. I wonder how many users commenting on these pages went through the T&Cs before they posted a comment…

@TheEnergyBadger

Thanks for the comments energy badger – I’m glad you found Which? Conversation’s privacy policy to be free of legal jargon – I gave it a good read myself before opening this conversation, and I’m glad to say I think we compare well to many other websites in terms of approachable, jargon-free explanations. As for word count? The Which? Conversation’s privacy policy is 1,024 words long – this policy is virtually identical to the one used on the main Which? website, so I wouldn’t necessarily count them twice over. The Which? Conversation’s terms and conditions are a further 1,105 words.

So you’re quite right, at 2,129 words, not the quickest of reads, though hopefully the easy-going language helps. And on the plus side, that’s still significantly shorter than the terms and conditions and privacy policies of Google, Twitter, Amazon, Apple iTunes, Apple iOS 5, Windows Live services or Paypal.

avatar

ArgonautoftheSeas

Thames Water once sent me by post w/out
my asking therefor their weighty tomb or photocopies
on A4s (100g paper) an inch thick of their entire T&Cs….
probably as long as/longer than and every bit as dark
and foreboding as ..Lear.

And I merely wanted to inspect or be made privy to a few
clauses thereof.

avatar

ArgonautoftheSeas

Depends on what’s at stake and in possible contention, don’t
bother unless matter is worthwhile pursuing… there’s
also in law the implied term(s) governing in a
contract that not very many will know or what such
term(s) might be.

avatar

ArgonautoftheSeas

In standard form contracts’ T&Cs , English Courts have no difficulty
under an established rule of court protecting other contracting party’s
interests in cases of ambiguities or unfairness (in consumer cases) of
such T&Cs; the rationale for this fair and equitable rule (IMO) is really
not that difficult for anyone to fathom, Courts having regard, of course,
to the strength and bargaining powers of both the contracting parties.

avatar

Dick Jennings

LoveFilm’s main Ts and Cs are 14,000 words long – and the second clause says they can change them any time in any way without notice to me and I’m bound by the changed content anyway!

Quite ridiculous – and I write as an experienced contract lawyer. Judges like to be fair, and that means if they think enforcing such impenetrable Ts and Cs on a consumer is unfair they’ll look for any way to avoid doing so.

There seems a complete disconnect between firms’ marketing departments, who want us to think their firms are customer-friendly, and their legal departments, who want us to think that their firms can trample all over us with impunity. Why don’t these guys ever talk? I may be a lawyer – but I’m with the marketing departments on this one!

avatar

Adge

You seem to be the only person here that’s recognised it’s: Ts & Cs!!

avatar

Brian McQuade

I often read, seldom understand
If there is a hidden catch, I would probably miss it, not being a lawyer; a summary by the maker would perhaps hide it.
Of course the number of items is latge, but someone – and it could be WHICH – should read these essays, with a lawyer’s cunning, to spot any catch..
Or the industry should agree on a standard,and be prepared to admit to any deviation.
I think WHICH should consider the task.

avatar

Emds41

Terms and conditions should be subject to the same criteria as in the contracts unfair terms act 1977. We should start challenging them in the Courts. The same applies to Insurance contracts.

Hey all, we’ve just republished this Convo due to a nice little graphic we’ve created showing the length of different online service’s T&Cs, with a comparison to Shakespeare plays.

avatar

wavechange

I must admit that – like all these T&Cs – I have not studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet in detail. Is that a tragedy? :-)

avatar

ArgonautoftheSeas

The Shakespeare tragedy King Lear I did when aged 13, wonder how many words that is
…. thought it a bit heavy going for such a comparatively tender age.

27,667 words for King Lear – only PayPal’s T&Cs are longer.

avatar

wavechange

My English teacher was very keen on précis, but most of the university students I have taught claim not to have covered précis at school. Equating précis to conveying information in a Twitter message was a useful analogy.

Perhaps those organisations with wordy T&Cs should try a little précis, with links to more detailed information if this is required.

avatar

ArgonautoftheSeas

Nah… Terms and Conditions in standard form contracts have to be
necessarily detailed, ALSO for avoidance of doubt and ambiguities,
for comprehensiveness AND to take into account every eventuality
that may arise and even if not foreseen or in present contemplation.

A good draftsman, usually a very experienced (commercial) Silk
learned in the law, will always see to that.

BTW some law reports in the weighty tombs do contain a helpful short
introductory summary outlining nature of case but otherwise shed
very/little light on what’s abt to unfold.

Of course, much access thereof is via the internet these days.

avatar

ArgonautoftheSeas

….We should start challenging them in the Courts.
The same applies to Insurance contracts. (Emds41)

Some such words below shall be used in a DIY case on front of claim form
N 1 to be issued. Hope other side wd back off before issue of proceedings
proper.

“To claim for damages for breach of contract, for breach of an express term
providing for funding of legal expenses on occasion of an insured event,
with respect to issue of third-party proceedings in accordance with the
Terms and Conditions set out in the Contract of Insurance
(Home Insurance Policy) imposed, entered into or otherwise agreed
between both the contracting parties”

avatar

Martin Sloan

Yes the word length may be excessive, but consider what PayPal is. It’s an interactive trading website that needs to deal with protecting the rights of both sellers and purchasers, handle payments that can be made using a variety of methods and in numerous currencies. PayPal is stuck in the middle of all this, but also needs to deal with the responsibilities and obligations of its users. Given that peope will only use PayPal if they have a good experience, it needs to have robust terms that ensure that the process runs smoothly and disputes resolved amicably.

For other online services, it seems harder to see why the terms are so long.

But consider Facebook’s statement of rights and responsibilities, which runs to 4,000 words It sets out how to be a good citizen on Faceboo, and a lot of it is common sense. Think about the offline equivalent – how many citizens in the UK are fully familiar with the laws here? How many people have read all the statutes and case law that set out the laws they are subject to? Not many, I suspect – but provided you act sensibly you will probably be okay

The key issue for consumers is differentiating between terms that are reasonable and those that are unexpected or potentially unfair. Including a summary of key principles, as Which? has called for, would help to ensure that consumers were made aware of anything unusual or onerous.

avatar

ArgonautoftheSeas

How many people have read all the statutes and case law that set out
the laws they are subject to? (MS)

…. good heavens, not all practising legal practitioners do that
either bar possibly Counsel in relevant cases!

The key issue for consumers is differentiating between terms that are
reasonable and those that are unexpected or potentially unfair. (MS)

consumers are not well-versed or learned in the law and cannot be expected
to take a detached/objective view of things…. just follow the very many postings on
the Orange price issue that seem to be driven by emotions or gut feelings rather
than sensible realities of the law or permissible legal entitlement set out in the contract
(Ts & Cs) they have entered into, in particular as to operation of the exclusion
or exemption clause(s)
,

avatar

Dick Jennings

Sorry, but I just don’t buy all these explanations as to why businesses need such quantities of legal prose to protect them.

I am a commercial solicitor who’s been advising on contract terms for 30 years. It’s as simple as this: if the business simply abdicates responsbility to a lawyer, who knows they’ll have their backside whipped if they fail to cover any risk area, but won’t be criticised for prolixity (indeed quantity of prose helps when billing the client) then of course you’ll get endless, turgid, quantities of legal guff.

But if the business wants to explain itself to its customers in a customer-friendly way there’s no reason on earth why it shouldn’t. It takes skill, a lot of effort, and some trade-offs between commercial priorities – but it’s perfectly possible.

Almost all the websites we’re criticising are US-owned. We’re lousy at tackling consumer contract terms sensibly over here – but they’re worse still in the US legal tradition, as these Hamlet-length examples go to show!

avatar

rarrar

Its not just the length, but the inability for most people to understand the terminology and the double, treble…. negatives often used.
Insurance policies have made great strides in improving the wording of their policies so why not other organisations ?

avatar

ArgonautoftheSeas

Policy wording may be that little bit clearer but a customer disappointed
of a claim will still have to sue…. don’t believe in the palaver of an ombudsman
intervention thing, any decision made is NOT of someone qualified in the law
and I can’t respect that. Experience and/or common sense is/are not an
adequate substitute for legal knowledge proper in any determination of mine.

In any event, whether or not there is a subsisting valid contract
OR as to an appropriate exclusion clause rendering insurer liable/not liable
is best left to be determined by a court of law nothing less.
(see comment posted herein on 23 March 2012 at 2:16 pm)

avatar

Paddy Murphy

Bearing in mind that much relied upon word in law courts “reasonable” how can lay people be expected to understand many pages of small type face terms and conditions?. I had a hundred pages of these terms from the Halifax recently. Absolute none sense. I suggest that all terms and conditions related to retails customers should be printed in a minimum 20 point typeface. That just might make a difference.

avatar

Boblechien

Isn’t this (once more) one of those senarios that require a “standard” and if the company chooses not to follow a “Which? approved (say) T&C set” then they must make that clear.

Then if the company relies on its non-approved T&Cs they have to show they are reasonable and honest otherwise a UK Court would reject them.

So all we need now is a cheap court to take them to!

And I haven’t read the T&Cs.

avatar

Tony Johnson

Once again, Which, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. IMO summary T&Cs should be standardised, stating all the important contract features in one, clear and easy to read screen. The summary should state contract start date and duration, charges and benefits, and circumstances which could lead to early termination of the contract (by either customer or provider) together with any exit fees chargeable. Not only should this vital information be clearly presented at the application stage, but it should also be available to view at any stage thereafter. One obvious place would be to include these details online under “My Account” or similar. All too often, at the moment, websites are little more than marketing tools such that many essential details are hidden away or not displayed at all.

avatar

J Miles

It should be a general priciple that T&Cs should never take longer to read than a reasonable person would be expected to spend during the course of making the purchase – perhaps one side of A4. Anything that is too long to read gives the seller an unfair advantage. In cases where goods can be bought over the counter without signing up to any T&Cs, there shoud be no requirement to sign up if a transaction is made online.

avatar

Eoghan

I am not surprised to see that only 3% of respondents read Ts&Cs all of the time. It is likely that the small print and any deviousness will only be visible to an experienced lawyer, so I see no point in reading them. A large proportion of the population have difficulties with reading, so what chance do they have? The PPI scandal is a case in point.

Thirty years ago in Australia, the government of Victoria published a standard core Household insurance policy which they defined to be “fair” and contained Ts&Cs which a customer might reasonably expect to be present in a household insurance policy. Any additions or reduction in cover had to be stated separately in the front of the policy wording. Could we aim for this here with,say, Which or an equivalent body specifying a “standard core” model?

avatar

Ken Armitt

The length of T&Cs is getting out of hand. In my view organisations should, by law, be forced to summerise the main salient points within a maximum of 1 A4 page (with letters of a readable size!). This should be the first page/screen you see with the aceptance box at the bottom of the page. Lets see Which set an example and implement it first.

avatar

Richard Jennings

See http://www.ted.com/talks/alan_siegel_let_s_simplify_legal_jargon.html for a powerful (American)speaker on the subject of simplifying standard terms.

If Which? were to run a league table ranking companies by how ghastly their terms are, and get some publicity round that, it might really have an effect. Government institutions too, please!

If Which? could sponsor a consumer-friendly standard set of terms for web-based offerings that would be even better.

Thanks Richard, that’s a nice idea and we’re having a look into it.

avatar

Geoff

I agree with many of the above views but my main gripe is that the companies make it difficult to read the T&Cs. They are often shown in a tiny window a few inches wide and 4-5 lines deep which makes reading slow and scanning impossible.A contents list at the front would also be helpful, enabling one to home in on key clauses such as payments, termination and privacy.

avatar

Mary

I recently got an email from ziinga online auction site as a result of being a member of jobs in a click, the email offered me a free item(an ipod shuffle) and required only a postage fee of £1.99. I thought it was a good deal and made payment immediately, for the purpose of “one gift per household policy” i also sent my card details and id after i had verified from a member of ziinga’s staff the need for these documents, which he also confirmed that it was also for the one gift per household policy. After somedays i logged in and saw some free bids waiting for me, i ignorantly used the free bids and was even praising ziinga for giving me free bids on top of the free gift, not knowing that i have entanggled myself in a contract that i never would imagine will be attached to “a free gift” The following month my hubby got the same promotional offer but was careful enough to have spotted that there is a catch to the offer. This was when i realised that i was doomed! I called ziinga for a refund but they claim that i have subscribed to the membership and that the membership is binding for a period of 3 whole months, and that i used out of the free bids that came alongside the promotional offer. This has been a frustrating experience and has made me realise the importance of reading every detail of this said TERMS & CONDITIONS.. however i still think that terms and conditions are written in such a way just to hide the fraudulent aspect of the company in question..

avatar

dick jennings

Right, so what are we going to do about it?

It’s a really extraordinary thing that these kinds of Ts and Cs are so lousy. Take Apple for example. The popular myth is that they are obsessive about getting every detail right, even in the packaging, to make the best experience for the customer. They are also supposed to be obsessive about creating a user experience so intuitive that no (or minimal) instruction is needed. And so they seem to be in most respects. Until you get to their 10,000 word user licence terms and 2,400 word privacy policy, which are the absolute antithesis of everything Apple is supposed to stand for: user-unfriendly, badly worded, badly set out, unnecessarily complicated and very confusing.

Does it matter? Yes, obviously, for consumers: there can be some nasty surprises lurking in the small print, and consumers are often trusting their only copies of hugely valued data to devices, or websites, governed by these terms. Yes for the business operator as well: they need to cover their backs and it’s not very clever trying to do so with contract terms so unlikely to be read, much less understood, that any self-respecting court will lean against enforcing them.

How does it all come to be such a mess? Because unfortunately most business managers, and most lawyers too, treat law as a mystery apart, not as a mainstream part of running a business. But doing business is wholly, and essentially, about negotiating legal rights with people (buying, and selling, mostly). And the Hamlet-length terms we’re discussing are so long precisely because complicated intellectual property and database law is at the very heart of what the consumer is buying. So for the business – the marketing people, the product development people – not to take ownership of the legal terms is ludicrous. But so common as to be taken for granted by all.

Let’s change that! Hmm. Very hard to do. It’s a whole culture change, and for any business to replace “Hamlet” with something truly accessible would be a big challenge involving lots of work. It’s tempting for them to conclude that most consumers don’t even try to read their terms, hence aren’t bothered by them, it’s not worth the trouble. The best chance would be for a body such as Which? to highlight the issue thus raising its profile, and at the same time to champion a new “best practice” standard which businesses could then win favour in the market by adopting.

What sort of “best practice” standard? I suggest the following as the heart of it:

1. Plain English, obviously

2. Use the capability of the web to produce a multi-layered experience. We’re all used to landing on a web page which briefly summarises what the website is about, then drilling down to deeper layers for more detail on whatever interests us. The way businesses present their terms and conditions should do the same. Terribly simple. But useless without step 3:

3. This third point is revolutionary but crucial: the normal rule in legal contracts is that detail over-rules generalities. TURN THAT RULE ON ITS HEAD. Make clear on the landing page of the terms that in this case the detail in the deeper layers will only apply if it’s a forseeable and reasonable embellishment of the general description. That gets over the “needle in the haystack” problem that the consumer can’t rely on the more general level of description, and has to pick through all the Hamlet-length detail, in case there’s something nasty hidden in clause 47 (vii) (x).

For a business to turn the normal rule on its head in that way carries a risk, of course. If any detail is unfairly hidden and unexpected it won’t be enforceable. But in the real world courts have plenty of grounds for declaring the hidden and unexpected, the needle in the haystack, to be unenforceable anyway – precisely because the consumer wouldn’t have expected it, can’t be taken to have agreed it and would be unfairly put upon if stuck with it. So a new and imaginative approach could work for both sides.

We could find our way to a system by which consumers can understand the broad shape of what they’re agreeing, by a shortish plain English description, without getting buried in a morass of detail. And busineses would benefit too, both by not hacking their customers off and by having more robustly enforceable contracts with them.

How about it Which? Shall we try to put a little dent in the universe? (To quote Steve Jobs – who else?)

avatar

Pam Laurance

I used to not read the T and Cs and worried a bit about it. But since hearing (On Radio 4′s “You And Yours”, I think) that courts would hold any unreasonable Term or Condition to be unenforceable, I’ve not read them and not worried.

avatar

B Langley

I have always felt that the use of microscopic fonts in Ts & Cs is intended to mask the ability of a company to get away with all sorts of liagbility by makiing them difficult to read, especially when wordsmiths are let loose to churn out pages of unreadable gobbledegook. In my view any condition in smaller than at least 12 point (even on a computer screen) should be illegal and unenforcible in a court of law (or anywhere else) and any T & C requiring more than one A4 page when typed in 12 point or larger should be applicable only as far as the first page, the remainder having no legal relevance whatever in any situation, and the language should be that of the relevant country. Companies won’t like being forced to be realistic and honest with their clientele so there is little liklihood of this happening

Hello all, we’ve just published a new Conversation about confusing online T&Cs:

Clause for concern: most people baffled by online T&Cs

http://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/online-privacy-policy-terms-and-conditions-confusion-investigation/

Back to top

Post a Comment

Commenting guidelines

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked

Tired of typing your name and email? Why not register.

Register or Log in

Browse by Category

Consumer Rights

762 Conversations

9457 Participants

27094 Comments

Energy & Home

636 Conversations

6999 Participants

24048 Comments

Money

810 Conversations

5955 Participants

15519 Comments

Technology

768 Conversations

7408 Participants

19204 Comments

Transport & Travel

597 Conversations

4758 Participants

13402 Comments