When I last went to a shop to buy something I was not presented at the till with a long set of terms and conditions that I had to sign before we could proceed any further. The idea of this seems crazy, not least as it would have to be an exceptionally long queue to properly review and consider the T&Cs I was signing up to. And frankly I don't think any of us would accept doing this, why should we?
But this is exactly what we accept in the online environment, we are expected to sign-up to T&Cs for that website before we can make our purchase or use services. But of course, very few of us actually read them. In fact, a recent poll that we undertook at GfK among a representative sample of UK consumers found that 40% of consumers agreed that they never read any of the Terms and Conditions that they signed up to online. This is despite 85% of the very same consumers considering it important that they understand what information is held about them in those T&Cs.
So what are we actually signing up to when we put a tick in that box, before digitally hurrying along to checkout? Campaigners have long grumbled about the opaque manner of many T&Cs with complaints about changes to Facebook privacy settings and rows raging over Instagram settings amongst many others. And of course these are just the changes we know about because companies are not required to publicize when their Terms and Conditions change.
And whilst for many this may seem like the dull academic issue it is actually pretty important. As more of our lives migrate to the online environment we are increasingly at the mercy of the contracts we have signed up to. And it can come as a surprise what we have signed up to. Take the case of Kyle Goodwin who used the now defunct file sharing site Megaupload as back-up storage for his US Ohio based film business OhioSportsNet. This was a small business that filmed local sports events in schools and the suchlike. When Megaupload was shut down in 2012 for alleged violation of copyright laws Goodwin, along with many others were not able to access the material that they stored on the site. The campaign organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation is working to access his materials but fundamentally the terms and conditions that he signed up to meant that when he stored them on that site he no longer had rights of ownership of those materials which of course makes retrieving those materials pretty difficult.
And of course there is a history of companies halting access to materials that you may consider you own. Amazon famously demonstrated this to its Kindle customers when they realized that there was a copyright issue with George Orwell's book 1984, which it then removed from the Kindle devices of all those that had purchased it. This made it apparent to those Amazon customers and others that the terms they had signed up to did not actually include ownership of the electronic books.
Similarly T&Cs cover what happens to our personal data, what is collected and stored, shared with third parties and overall determining how much of this is used to tailor services and market other products and services to us. We found that an amazing 91% of UK consumers consider it important to understand how data collected about them is shared with other companies. There certainly is consumer interest in this issue.
So what exactly should brands, or indeed consumers for that matter, start doing about this? Our recent polling indicates that UK consumers certainly have an appetite for better understanding what they are signing up to but how do you go about this without becoming a legal expert?
Enter Docracy, an interesting new company that launched in 2012. They are aiming to do to contracts (which clearly T&Cs are) what open source did for software, making contracts freely available in an amendable format online. So any organisation can find contracts that are close to what they need and then amend them to meet their own specific needs, reducing or possibly negating the need for expensive lawyers. Whilst this is potentially disruptive in its own right, Docracy this year also launched a Terms of Service Tracker which logs changes that companies have made to the T&Cs that we sign up to. Whilst for most of us this is not exactly riveting reading, it nevertheless makes it much more difficult for brands to make changes without them being noticed more widely.
And other developments may be on the way. MIT Media Lab is currently understood to be researching automated T&C checking systems. The principle here is that you can determine the principles that you are willing to engage with a company and then each time you sign up to a new service the system flags to you whether the T&Cs meet or violate your principles.
It certainly feels as if consumer sentiment is moving towards greater transparency around T&Cs. Some companies are starting to recognize this and finding that reduced opaqueness generally has a positive effect on their brand. BT's practice of offering different levels of cookie acceptance is a case in point.
Of course as brands start making T&Cs clearer for consumers there will be a greater understanding of what they contain. And this may in fact be the real challenge - will consumers accept what they find in them?
This article was originally featured in the Huffington Post. You can contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions