I’ve been reading online small print so you don’t have to – but you need to know how much information you’re giving away.
We live in a time of terms and conditions. Never before have we signed or agreed so many. But one thing hasn’t changed: we still rarely read them.
According to a Fairer Finance Survey, small print for some companies now runs to more than 30,000 words (the length of a short novel) and, unsurprisingly, 73% of people admit to not reading all the fine print. Of those who do, only 17% say they understand it.
For a few years I was one of the 27% ploughing through the turgid fine print. Researching a book about a lawyer, I became obsessed with contracts. Then one day, after reading reams of legal gobbledygook, I experienced something similar to the moment when Neo sees the cascading Matrix code: I saw that below our day-to-day lives runs a confluence of tiny rules shaping our reality. This underworld only bursts to the surface when things go wrong. Like when you crash your scooter in Thailand and realise that your travel insurance doesn’t cover scooter accidents. Or in my case, when I misread (ignored) the fine print of my residency in an Eastern European Country and was almost deported.
The Ts&Cs matrix is ubiquitous, and for modern citizens cannot be avoided. But a few people are questioning it. Dmitry Argakov didn’t like his credit card contract, so he rewrote it and his bank duly signed it. It seems even banks don’t read their own fine print, and that revenge is a dish best served cold and in portions too tiny to see. Dmitry authored the perfect credit card: no fees, no interest, no limit, and a clause forcing the bank to pay him if it broke the contract. Apparently an out-of-court agreement has been reached.
Small print is presently at the frontline of society’s biggest debate. Is there privacy in the internet age? Two contracts in particular fuel this: the ever-fluid, ever-mystifying terms of Google and Facebook. The innocent Boston family visited by a terrorism task force after Googling rucksack and pressure cooker, know this too well. For these free services we pay with personal information harvested to sell us more stuff. Cullen Hoback’s documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, exposes this devil’s deal, making the point that all 425 million users signed the term: Gmail Plaintiffs consent to the scanning disclosed in these terms.
But here’s where it gets creepy – all your information then goes to the government. Each time you tick any website’s terms, you’re inadvertently signing a set of invisible terms – code so deeply encrypted in the alphabet soup of GCHQ, NSA and Prism that Neo himself couldn’t crack it. The proliferation of fine print stretching to the length of novels is of course ridiculous, but at least it is not as sinister as invisible terms and conditions. And, more worrying, according to an article by John Lanchester about the Edward Snowden files, the process to freely plunder your digital life is now so cursory it’s basically fatuous. The agent will “select a justification under the Human Rights Act. That isn’t too arduous, because the agent can choose the justification from a drop-down menu.” Yes, you read correctly: your rights have been reduced to a drop-down menu. And all because you signed up for a free email service.
I wish I could say I learned my lesson from researching all the frightening consequences of fine print, or from almost being deported. But when I finished my book, I fell back into bad habits. Because the harder you try to understand fine print, the more confusing it becomes. Like driving past slicing lines of cornrows, the sentences snap into meaningless patterns. They’re written like that on purpose. In a style so dry that your eyeballs crack as your brain tries to sneak out of your ears.
So nowadays, like everyone else, I skim over them and have that same thought: I’d rather deal with the consequences of blindly signing this than have to read it.