If you’ve ever been baffled by a Terms of Service agreement—the mind-numbing list of rules and disclosures you must agree to before using popular websites such as Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, and countless others—you are in very good company. The vast majority of U.S. adults probably don’t understand them either.
That’s according to a new academic paper, which makes the case that almost all such agreements require specialized knowledge — and a whole lot of education — to be comprehensible to the average person.
Professors Uri Benoliel, of Ramat Gan Law School, and Shmuel I. Becher of the Victoria University of Wellington, teamed up to study the term agreements—also known as clickthrough agreements—of 500 websites, rating them on common linguistic readability tests known as the Flesch-Kincaid and Flesch Reading Ease scales. The researchers determined that in 99% of cases, 14 years of education was required in order comprehend these clickthrough agreements.
“The average readability level of these agreements is comparable to the usual score of articles in academic journals, which typically do not target the general public,” the professors concluded.
According to information published by the Census Bureau, approximately 88% percent of all adults held a high school diploma in 2015, 59% had completed at least some college, and 33% held a higher degree. This means that only a minority could likely comprehend what all those terms and conditions in a clickthrough agreement really mean.
Why it matters
This is a potentially important finding, because in a series of recent cases, the U.S. courts have held that clickthrough contracts are enforceable regardless of whether or not they are read. If the “I Agree” button is clicked, then the contract is legal.
But Benoliel and Becher argue that this doesn’t take into consideration whether or not these contracts can be understood in the first place: “While consumers are expected and presumed to read their contracts, suppliers are generally not required to offer readable contracts,” they wrote. “This asymmetry creates a serious public policy challenge.”
While there’s no solution to this problem just yet, Benoliel and Becher told Motherboard that consumers should get comfortable with challenging the validity of these clickthrough agreements.
“Too many people believe that if the contract says something then this is it and it is what it is,” Becher told Motherboard. “Assertive, sophisticated, or vocal consumers can sometimes get firms to forego the contractual language and reveal a more pro-consumer approach.”