The big unknown - terms and conditions (T&C)

Sven Krumrey

There are some things we don't talk about. Googling oneself, taking vain selfies, stuffing oneself with fast food or looking the other way to avoid conversation - we'd rather keep that to ourselves. The one thing where we always lie is when we're checking off T&Cs. Whether we install programs and updates or make purchases, we usually scroll through the often mile-long terms and conditions at lightning speed to click the "I agree" button. The show must go on after all! What we tend to forget: we're entering into a contract sight unseen.

Tiny letters, big effect

There's always been a fear of the fine print that, when it comes to insurance contracts, has already given so many signatories sleepless nights. While this is a special case involving an important decision, buying movie tickets online, logging on to a public WLAN or purchasing an app are normal everyday activities. That's why consumer protection activists are calling for a 200 word limit on T&Cs to render them more readable and transparent. Most situations are governed by laws that cannot be overridden by terms and conditions any way. And while there are regulations to prevent surprise clauses, many documents still contain various discussion-worthy passages.

They probably want us to agree blindly. As "The Atlantic" found out, it would take an average American 76 work days to read through the terms and conditions they're usually presented with. The average length of T&Cs is 2.514 words with a few outliers. For example, customers of Deutsche Bahn are expected to read through 178 pages of terms and conditions, that's enough content for a small novel. If you managed read all of Paypal's terms, kudos to you and hats off to your perseverance! Is it even possible to read everything? In other words: who'd honestly spend a cozy evening in their armchair with tea and a couple of T&Cs? Nobody - and that's precisely what companies are counting on when they conceal clauses in their terms that users would otherwise never agree to.

Long trains, lengthy terms and conditions – Deutsche Bahn Long trains, lengthy terms and conditions – Deutsche Bahn

Access rights and permissions are a common example especially among cellphone apps. Many programs hide the true nature of their intentions when they ask for access to your personal data. For instance, why would a small game need to use your calendar, address book or camera? If the reasons behind the requests were stated in plain English, many would probably get rid of the software right away. But when they're buried in non-readable English on what feels like page 32, we happily consent. The Bank of America, for example, reserved the right to take pictures or calls unasked and Apple had so many ambiguous clauses in their terms for iTunes that the company was forced to be more transparent by the courts. T&Cs can also contain clauses for automatic subscription extensions, consent to marketing calls or hidden costs, many of which wouldn't hold water in court. Here, companies simply rely on the user's reluctance to sue them over small claims.

It's worth taking a closer look at what people blindly agree to. Pranksters and privacy groups occasionally conduct amazing experiments to this effect. One of their made-up clauses obligated WLAN users in London to give up their firstborn child. This didn't stop too many eager web surfers, maybe they didn't like their kids that much. In another case, 22,000 festival visitors agreed to clean toilets for 41.7 days, scrape gum of sidewalks and (my personal favorite) hug stray pets. The developer of a sound application included a clause in his terms that users had to provide him with a steady supply of waffles. Gamestation, a game developing company, even stipulated that users surrender their souls to them in exchange for playing their games, just for laughs of course. Winkelmann und Hinkeldein GbR, the German masters of T&Cs, included a clause that obligated licensees to settle legal disputes through traditional duels - for claims below €25,000 and with water pistols, mercifully.

Waffles for programmers Waffles for programmers

To be fair, having to explain legal matters isn't exactly the stuff romance novels are made of. Statutory provisions (if present) only complicate matters - but does Amazon really have to use sentences that span a whopping 12 lines? Granted, making their software Lumberyard available in the event of a zombie apocalypse is not without an element of humor but more transparent terms would still be preferable. It's up to the legislator to step in. There are already proposals for mandatory validation checks by government institutions. If anything, companies could be required to highlight important passages, e.g. clauses concerning costs. In conjunction with the aforementioned 200 word limit, this would be a step in the right direction towards more efficient consumer protection. I'd very much like to see Apple condense their currently 14 page T&C down to 200 words. I'd even read them!

Whether these modifications would be enough to protect our youth is questionable. The terms and conditions of Snapchat, a favorite among teens, is considered the seventh circle of hell by privacy groups. The program can pretty much do anything and everything with the data generated by its users. This includes processing and deleting messages, creating user profiles for advertising as well as verifying, archiving and distributing phone numbers. They could just replace their terms with "We can do whatever we want!!!". If anything, that would be more honest. When this issue was recently brought up in a popular forum, there was no sign of outrage. The users simply didn't care.

What I would like to know: do you read T&Cs? Be honest!

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