Google’s terms more complex than Beowulf

beowulfIP Draughts spluttered over his porridge this morning, while reading an item in his newspaper.  According to researchers at the University of Nottingham, if you want to understand Google’s internet user agreement you need a higher level of literacy than you need to understand Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon poem that was written about 1000 years ago.  Non-firewalled news report here.

The research team has developed some software that will rate the readability of website text. Called Literatin, it has been developed to work best with Google Chrome.  There is an amusing irony here: you have to accept the Google terms before you can use the software!  It seems that there is also a version that uses Firefox.  See here to download either version.  IP Draughts wonders whether it uses any of the same methodology as the Bla-Bla Meter, which we reported on here.

Ms Ewa Luger (@ew_luger), a member of the research team and PhD candidate, is reported as citing the phrase “sharing data with third party entities” as a prime example of incomprehensible text.  It is not just the words used, but their “cultural hinterland” which affects readability. In other words, people find it easier to understand things that relate to their lives than abstract legal concepts such as data protection.

googleIn her view, drafters should make terms and conditions easier to read.  According to the software, a good model of readability would be Fifty Shades of Grey, which uses simple language and a simple sentence structure.

An alternative approach might be to get a famous actor to read out the terms, as this might improve comprehension.  Try Richard Dreyfus reading the Apple terms, which we reported here.

This discussion is about consumer contracts which need to be easier to understand than business-to-business contracts.  Nevertheless, IP Draughts is very interested to see research being conducted on whether people understand contract terms.  In his experience, even lawyers struggle to understand some of the terms that are encountered in many contracts, such as indemnities.

4 Comments

Filed under Contract drafting

4 responses to “Google’s terms more complex than Beowulf

  1. theContractsGuy

    Mark: The state of affairs of consumer-facing online contracting is really a mess. It may very well be economically irrational for most consumers to read all the terms they’re presented–I read somewhere that it would take several months for the average consumer to read all the terms they agree to each year if they worked full-time at it, and I believe that it would. You could blow an entire weekend just updating a few apps on your iPhone if you took the time to read all the fine print. Yet courts enforce online terms and analyze them as being contracts, an approach that tends to stretch the concept of mutual assent, and apply the duty to read doctrine, which is surely the most-shirked “duty” of all-time.

    Tim Cummins on his Commitment Matters blog has an interesting article on the subject titled “When it is wise not to review a contract” http://commitmentmatters.com/2013/10/21/when-it-is-wise-not-to-review-a-contract/, and the ContractsProf blog had a really interesting online symposium recently about Margaret Jane Radin’s book Boilerplate: The Fine Print, Vanishing Rights and the Rule of Law (this post is a good entry point to the discussion: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/contractsprof_blog/2013/06/boilerplate-symposium-conclusion-for-now-peggy-radin-responds-to-week-three.html).

    • Thanks, Brian, interesting thoughts. Here in socialist (or at least dirigiste) Europe, the solution is wave after wave of EU consumer protection legislation, which make it very difficult to enforce one-sided, legalistic terms in consumer contracts (or website term).

      • theContractsGuy

        Mark: Although I deplore being daily bombarded by fine print that I’m obviously not going to read, I’m not enthusiastic about the prospect of regulation. I’m not sure it’s necessary anyway. There are safety valves in contract law that can protect consumer expectations, and the realities of business also protect consumers against severe overreach. Plus, although courts enforce the fine print, I can’t recall reading a case that involved a right that a consumer would have fought for even if given a chance.

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