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

Ever tried to read the fine print relating to your online privacy? We have and we’ve discovered many are pretty bamboozling. Some privacy policies are so badly written that half of Brits can’t understand them.

Which? Computing devised a simple electronic test taking 10 clauses from the privacy policies of online heavyweights – including Twitter, Hotmail, Paypal and Google – and then challenged 100 people to pick the correct explanation from our multiple choice answers. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?

Privacy terms misunderstood by most

Actually, it could. Our test revealed that while the majority (65%) told us that the privacy policy terms were easy to understand, only half got the correct answer.

The gap was even wider in the case of Facebook. Although 70% of people told us they found Facebook’s privacy policy quite or very clear to understand, a mere 31% of them picked the right multiple choice answer.

And only 26% correctly interpreted a clause from file storage site Dropbox, despite 59% of our examinees claiming they found it to be quite or very clear.

Online T&Cs often go unread

While many privacy terms are misunderstood, the majority don’t bother to read them at all. Only 13% of people actually bother to read websites’ T&Cs according to our survey. And just 8% said they carefully read the full T&Cs of an online service before clicking accept.

The length of these policies is one reason they go unread. As my colleague Richard Parris has previously pointed out many policies are longer than the longest of Shakespeare’s plays.

The combined T&Cs and privacy policy for Apple’s iTunes run to 19,972 words, making them longer than Macbeth. And when you add up PayPal’s privacy policy, acceptable-use policy, its eBay shipping services policy and UK billing agreement terms, you’re left with a staggering 34,798 words to wade through. Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, clocks in at 30,066 words.

Does it matter if you don’t read T&Cs

Little wonder people don’t read these terms; I wouldn’t. But the fact remains that we should know what we’re consenting to. You could, for example, be consenting to your details being sold on to a third party that you’ve never even heard of.

We have worked hard to make our own privacy policies accessible and easy to read and other websites should do the same. How can people be expected to understand them if they’re so long, full of legal jargon and badly worded?


Well done Which?!

Apple’s current iPad conditions weigh in at an unbelievable 300,000 words – but that’s because they give you them in all the major world languages, as one continuous wodge of text.

Any chance of that survey being made available somewhere? I ask as a lawyer, for two reasons: (i) I and all contract lawyers could learn a lot from it (humility, no doubt, mostly!) and so, one hopes, do our little bit to change web terms for the better; and (ii) that survey could directly influence UK courts not to enforce contract terms that the user had no reasonable prospect of knowledgably assenting to, which in turn should put pressure on the companies involved to communicate with users in a more sensible way. On both counts, by making the survey available you’d be helping protect consumers.

As a contract lawyer myself I find the ludicrously poor standard of engagement by companies on-line with their user-customers thoroughly embarrassing. It’s completely unnecessary, and it’s about time that businesses which would go to great lengths to protect their brand reputations in other respects realised that adversarial and inept engagement through legal terms does them real brand harm.

I think terms and conditions that are incomprehensible to more than a third of the population are – by definition – unfair. Given the opportunity to make a judgment, which unfortunately rarely happens because most actions either do not proceed to trial because of onerous costs or get settled out of court, I believe the court would be reluctant to enforce such unfair terms. That these legalsnares are threaded together by lawyers just adds insult to injury and should be an embarrassment to the profession.

John – you’re right in all respects.

One common feature of the web-based terms is that most come from US companies and all are strongly influenced by US practice. So we have to change hearts and minds over there, not just in the UK. Hmmm.

In all honesty I don’t seem to have trouble – except they often use tiny fonts – So I use Ctrl and + plus keys to enlarge. But generally I don’t bother as I buy most things through PayPal and their Refund system works well (2 non deliveries) – and the only “trouble” I had when buying through Amazon was resolved and the private business lost it’s account with Amazon when I complained.

Faith Brown says:
27 July 2012

I am afraid I seldom read them. When I first learned to use the internet my teacher said “Well, you have to agree or you can’t get whatever it is that you want!”
Many thanks however to the person who has just told me how to enlarge them!!

Mr. Weird here. I read all T&Cs, just in case there’s something that I really don’t like (Safari fell foul of my own personal T&Cs).

I’ve now gotten quite good at locating the important bits so I just speed read the rest. The only thing that bothers me is that my interpretation of the T&Cs might not be the same as the website’s.

I’ve noticed that some T&Cs ask you to affirm that you have read and understand them, and I’m not sure how you can do that. How do you know you understand them? Would it be a defence to claim that you were keeping to the rules as you understood them? Others simply ask if you agree to them, which means you’re not even signing that you’ve read them. Considering how much they like to cross the Is and dot the Ts, that seems a bit of an omission.

My bank has sent me its updated terms and conditions – several pdf files of umpteen pages.
My complaints in the past have been to no avail.
I wish WHICH success in its campaign to simplify/shorten terms and conditions in general

rafique says:
21 September 2014

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