Martin Sloan: Do terms have to be – or not be – so long?
The news that PayPal’s terms and conditions are the same length as Hamlet has brought back in vivid detail the hours I spent as a schoolboy poring over Shakespearean prose.
Given that it takes the average Higher English class an entire school year to read and dissect the Bard’s tragedy, can we really expect consumers to read and understand a legalistic treatise of similar length while signing up to the latest online service?
In practice, few, if any, consumers will ever read terms and conditions before clicking “accept”. So do PayPal’s terms really have to be this long? It might not surprise you that I should say this as a lawyer, but the answer is yes. As a business handling millions of pounds worth of online transactions every day it has to cover a vast range of issues. For other online services, it’s sometimes harder to see why the terms are so long.
The key issue for consumers is differentiating between terms that are reasonable and those that are unexpected or potentially unfair. This is why Which? has called for users to be provided with a more concise set of principles, which highlight the key things they should be aware of. And, as my childhood experience of cramming for my English exams taught me, brevity can sometimes be a very good thing.
• Martin Sloan is an associate in the Technology, Information and Outsourcing Group at Brodies LLP
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