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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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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,.


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…



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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

Adge says:
19 July 2012

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

Brian McQuade says:
22 March 2012

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.


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.


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


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.