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

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.

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

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Comments
Guest
J Miles says:
30 March 2012

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.

Guest
Eoghan says:
3 April 2012

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?

Guest
Ken Armitt says:
9 April 2012

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.

Guest

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.

Guest

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

Guest

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.

Guest
Mary says:
26 April 2012

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..

Guest

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?)