Online Terms and Conditions:  Rusting Suits of Armor?


by Irene Etzkorn, Chief Clarity Officer, Siegelvision


Since seeing Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg hauled before the United States Congress to testify, all online companies are in a panic to simplify their online terms and conditions. Three times in fifteen minutes today, I’ve been confronted with messages from Twitter, LinkedIn and Huffington Post, all announcing new terms and conditions. Certainly, no coincidence.

While consumer advocates are constantly admonishing the public to inform themselves, motivated consumers are often hard-pressed to do so. Let’s face it. Companies use terms and conditions as a suit of armor.

The operative word here is “simplify.”  Certainly, tens of thousands of words spread across dozens of separate web pages makes reading impossible just from sheer length. The “nesting” of links similarly is a maze of rabbit holes from which no consumer is likely to emerge informed. Each link leads to another; once I click on “data policy” will I ever notice the link to “community standards?” And what might I find in “Other terms and Policies?”

Ironically, many of the issues with the terms and conditions center around invasion of privacy—knowing everything about me including my movements so that they could sell more advertising. Yet, companies don’t seem to know the slightest detail that would enable them to tailor the content of the terms and conditions to make them more relevant to me. Young consumers don’t recognize the value of privacy since they have only lived in the era of fishbowl visibility. They are giving away something with the flick of a finger that is actually quite valuable.

What would it mean to simplify online terms? Both simplicity and clarity would play a role. A realistically brief agreement with clear intent that quickly conveyed its purpose and covered likely-to-occur circumstances would come close to achieving both. To shorten the distance between customers and companies, we need customized content expressed through meaningful, succinct writing and presented with approachable, intuitive design.

Are regulators at fault for requiring too much information or too little? Are companies deliberately spewing out reams of unintelligible information in an attempt to hoodwink their customers? Are consumers to blame for their own laziness?

Many companies view disclosure documents as somewhere between “necessary evils” and “useful smokescreens.” Many companies have no evil intent. They simply don’t understand the language of their customers. They are swaddled by industry jargon and blame the outside world for miscommunication. They literally speak to themselves so constantly that they’ve developed a business-speak dialect.

They also often turn to the same legal and operations staff who created the original, incomprehensible documents to ‘go and simplify things.’” The result is that people are faced with many so‑called ‘plain English’ documents, which aren't really much clearer than the old ones. They represent a cosmetic rewrite, not a commitment to simplify substance as well as style.

What can companies do differently?

  • Change the underlying policies so that when they are expressed clearly, they are acceptable to most consumers. If a provision becomes more appalling as it becomes clearer, it is a good indication that the intent is the issue, not the expression.

  • Guide the reader to the items of note. Summarize and bring up to the front the items that affect the majority of people or are most significant.

  • Customize the content so that readers do not have to sort through numerous “if, then…”

  • Use common sense.

What can regulators do differently?

  • Require real-world testing with the target audience to evaluate the actual usefulness of the information. This means task-based testing—asking people to do what the information is supposed to help them accomplish—change their settings, delete some personal data, modify their postings, etc.

  • Do spot checking (à la mystery shopping) to determine whether the information is working.

What can consumers do differently?

  • Change their buying habits to reward companies that inform rather than delude them.

  • Remind themselves that free online services are never free; the payment is made in the form of giving away information.

  • Petition their lawmakers if they are dismayed by the quality of information they are given.

  • Vote.