You just downloaded a new app on your handheld, or used a new e-commerce service. You were most likely asked if you accept the user’s or service agreement. You probably said "yes" without even looking at the line after line after line of tiny font legalese. Congratulations! In addition to the usual do’s and don’ts for users, you also agreed to give up your first born and to dance naked in Rockefeller Center with a possum on your head.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration (you don’t really have to give up your first-born, but the dance thing is still on…), but the proliferation of the fine print is astonishing. And it’s getting worse. Is it because we’re a highly litigious society and this is all about preemptive butt covering? Or do the attorneys get paid by the word? Are you inadvertently opting in for something ("We will automatically renew your order and bill you after this free trial expires in 30 days unless we hear from you…") which will be a hassle to unwind down the road? There’s probably some "yes" to all of those questions. The truth is, we don’t know what we don’t know about all those disclaimers, restrictions, liabilities, consents, and indemnifications buried in those agreements we don’t read.
Earlier this year, I printed out the services agreement for the tax software I use and it runs 12 single-spaced pages and approximately 6,000 words. That seemed like a lot of blah-blah-blah about intellectual property rights and restrictions, but after all this is tax software and there are a lot of legal and privacy issues at stake, so I suppose I understood the need for this mini War and Peace of an agreement.
But 5 pages and 3,150 words just to make a dinner reservation on OpenTable?
You might be familiar OpenTable, an online service for restaurant reservations. Seems pretty simple, right? But seriously—3,150 words, addressing issues like arbitrations, waivers, and liability limitations? C’mon—I just wanted to make a dinner reservation.
But that exercise in overkill was trumped by the Visa prepaid card from Showtime. I had a $25 rebate coming as a result of a recent promotion with the Showtime channel. In the good old days they would have sent me a check and I would have cashed it. No muss, no fuss. What I received was a Visa prepaid card which I had to activate online through a series of screens and steps, requiring a username and password and accepting an agreement that ran 11 pages and 5,494 words. All to use a $25 rebate card. As Dave Barry used to say, I’m not making this up.
Some perspective here. The Gettysburg Address was 286 words. The Declaration of Independence has 1,322 words. The original U.S. Constitution is comprised of 4,440 words. That’s right—the Visa $25 one-time-use debit card agreement has 25% more words than the U.S. Constitution. I have not heard whether there are plans to display it in Philadelphia in a vacuum-sealed glass case.
A recent article in Smart Money provides some interesting fine-print statistics and points of view to consider, including one assertion that ironically, many of the consumer protection laws and regulations promulgated to strengthen the hand of the consumer have in fact led to longer and more arcane user agreements and disclosures.
That is, as businesses are pressed to state responsibilities and liabilities for products and services, they are spelling EVERYTHING out to ensure they are not one day on the losing end of a damage settlement because of something that was inferred or implied in the product/service use. While transparency and lucidity might have been the objective, what has resulted seems much more like opaqueness and obfuscation. Yes—be careful of what you wish for.
So the next time you download something which requires you to "accept," take a few minutes to read about the indemnifications, liabilities, and restrictions you just agreed to. You’ll likely be both impressed and appalled. And read the fine print carefully to ensure that you have not indeed signed up to perform the possum dance.
Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Image: Flickr user LiLauraLu]