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Are terms and conditions fit for purpose?

Are terms and conditions fit for purpose?

Posted by david-hand | 30 August 2018

Following her involvement in day one of the recent Legal Design Sprint, we sat down with Dr Liz Dowthwaite of the University of Nottingham, to find out more about her work on UnBias which focuses on trust between young people and online services they use. We discussed one of the major aspects of her work, the challenges that teenagers face in understanding terms and conditions, and the parallels between her work and the Legal Design Sprint.

What have you recently been working on?

Over the last two years, I’ve been working with groups of teenagers to explore their online lives and social media, and their opinions on how companies collect data on them and how that data is then used. One theme that came up a lot was that they would like to know what is happening to their data, and this information is in a platform’s terms and conditions. The problem is that nobody reads them. The challenge as a researcher was to understand why.

Why did you choose terms and conditions as the topic you challenged students to tackle at the Legal Design Sprint?

In short, it’s because that terms and conditions are too long, too complicated and often contain unnecessary legalese which makes them hard to engage with, especially for teenagers. Frequently, they are written in such a way that even many adults would struggle to understand – a BBC article recently highlighted how a user needs to be university educated to understand the terms and conditions of the popular social media platforms.

Legal Design makes a lot of sense in the context of my research, especially the work that has focused on how information might be better communicated to young people. It makes sense that legal professionals, and future legal professionals, should be engaging with these problems too. This is why I chose this topic for the Legal Design Sprint, because making social media terms and conditions more accessible to everyone that uses them is a challenge, but as a ubiquitous part of daily life for a lot of people, it’s an important problem to address.

What is the main challenge in applying legal design to terms and conditions?

The main challenge is to simplify them. A lot of what is contained in terms and conditions has to be presented to people who want to use a platform, and they need to agree to them. As a result of this, it is hard to shorten them without losing important things that a user has to know. My group at the Design Sprint started to discuss ways to address this, so I’m really interested to see what they come up with for day two of the event.

What impact has the Legal Design Sprint had on the students?

On the day I talked to them about their potential solution being something that could feed back into the new project I’ll be working on, and they were very excited about that. I think one of the big successes of the Design Sprint is that the students were working with real people in the field and knowing that they could have an effect, and that it’s not just an academic exercise.

How important are real-world examples to your research?

Throughout our projects, we try to use real examples. The media interest in social media and privacy continues to grow, which means there’s an increasing amount of material to use in that way. The Cambridge Analytica story has been an obvious catalyst for some of that, but the increased interest across the board is meaning that companies like Facebook or Google are being held more accountable.

As an example of this, Facebook has started advertising about how they care about people’s data. Publicly at least they are attempting to show that they care about what is happening, and that’s arguably all because the mainstream media like the BBC are paying more attention to what they’re doing.

How do you feel terms and conditions could be made more accessible?

A summary which provides the most salient points would increase the number of users who engage with them on any level at all. While there would need to be more detail available on request, at a minimum users would be agreeing to terms and conditions where they have at least some idea of what they’re agreeing to.

There is a sense that companies assume that if people knew what they were doing with data that users would object, but my research hasn’t found that. From my studies, people are fine with companies collecting their data, they’re even fine with companies selling their data, as long as they know what data, who to, how often, and how it’s aggregated.

People are aware at this point that ‘free’ services are really paid for with data as a currency, and they are mostly fine with that. They just want to understand what that cost is. People aren’t stupid, they just aren’t lawyers either.

Where can people find out more about your research?

The UnBias website is the best way to find out about the project I’ve been a part of for the past 2 years.

On October 1st we will be holding a one-day workshop in London to showcase the UnBias project to research, education and policy communities. This engaging and interactive event will also include a range of presentations as well as opportunities for networking.  As the UnBias project is now drawing to a close, we will also be announcing plans for our follow-up project, ReEnTrust.

If anyone would like more information about this event, they can contact me.


More about Dr. Liz Dowthwaite

Liz is a researcher at the University of Nottingham’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute, with a PhD in the Creative and Digital Economy. She has a multi-disciplinary research background grounded in Psychology and Human Factors. Her research interests include online behaviour in crowds (for example crowdfunding, social media, and citizen science); outreach and science communication, especially with young people; and the effects of the online world on psychological well-being. Her thesis focused on crowdfunding, but the research also involved working with webcomics creators to understand how they deal with issues of copyright and ownership. Her current project, UnBias, surrounds user understanding of algorithm-driven internet services, for example, Facebook and Instagram, including issues such as how personal data is used by platforms, and how terms and conditions are perceived by young people.


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