99% of website sign-up contracts are unreadable, study finds

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Sign-up terms and conditions on the most popular U.S. websites have an average readability level on par with articles in academic journals, according to a study by two law professors.

The professors used two readability tests to review “sign-in-wrap contracts” that consumers are required to accept before they sign up for the websites. Out of 500 agreements studied, 498 fell below the recommended readability score for consumer-related information, Motherboard reports.

The two tests used are based on average sentence length and number of syllables for each word.

Most readability studies suggest that consumer texts be written at or below an eighth-grade reading level. But the study found that the average reading level of the contracts studied required more than 14 years of education to understand.

Average sentence length should be no longer than 25 words, but that length was exceeded in 70.4 percent of the agreements.

The authors studied a wide range of websites, including sites for news, merchandise, tourism, video games, business services, social media and software.

Several of the agreements studied had “extremely long sentences,” according to the study. This 161-word sentence is cited as an example: “To the greatest extent permitted by law, under no circumstances will Grinding Gear Games, its employees, contractors or agents be liable to you in contract, tort, equity, statute, regulation or otherwise for any loss, damage, costs, legal costs, professional and other expenses of any nature whatsoever incurred or suffered by you or by any third-party, whether direct or consequential (including without limitation any economic loss or other loss of turnover, profits, business or goodwill) arising out of any dispute or contractual, tortious or other claims or proceedings made by or bought against you which relate in any way to your access and use of any of the website, materials and services, including without limitation in relation to any posts or images or any breach by you of the posting policy or image policy, or in respect of any failure or omission on the part of Grinding Gear Games to comply with its obligations as set out in these terms of use.”

The study authors are Samuel Becher, a law professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and Uri Benoliel, a law professor at the College of Law and Business in Ramat-Gan, Israel.

Becher explained why he and his co-author are interested in readability in an email to Motherboard. “While consumers are legally expected or presumed to read their contracts, businesses are not required to write readable ones. This asymmetry—and its potential consequences—puzzled us,” he said.

Consumers generally are bound by these contracts even if they don’t read them, the authors point out.

The law professors suggest that policymakers impose a general “readability duty” on the drafters of consumer contracts.

Courts could step in by finding no assent to a contract that is unreadable, the authors say. Courts also could substitute terms unfavorable to the drafter when they are deemed unreadable.

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