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Monday, March 4, 2013

For Those Who Have 76 Days to Spare

( H/T to Ben Davis -and his student - for posting about the article to the Contracts Prof list serv).

This article indicates that the average Internet user would need 76 work days in order to read all the privacy policies that she encounters in a year.  (Unfortunately, the link to the study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon researchers and cited in the article doesn’t seem to be working).  But you don’t need a study to tell you that privacy policies are long-winded and hard to find.  That’s one of the reasons you don’t read them.  Another is that they can be updated, often without prior notice, so what’s the point in reading terms that are constantly changing? Finally, what can you do about it anyway?  Don’t like your bank’s privacy policies – good luck finding another bank with a better one.

But we contracts profs are familiar with the disadvantages of standard form contracts. We’re also familiar with the efficiency argument in favor of them. The same issues arise with privacy policies – only there’s one important difference between a privacy policy and a contract, even an adhesive one. A privacy policy isn’t really a contract, at least not in most cases. That’s one of the arguments I make in my forthcoming book, WRAP CONTRACTS:  FOUNDATIONS AND RAMIFICATIONS.  A privacy policy is typically a notice, not a contract.  Courts – especially in cases involving digital contracts – have tended to confuse or conflate the two.  If you look at the wrap contracts (shrinkwrap,browsewrap, clickwrap) cases under traditional contract law, they make no sense.  If you analyze them as notice cases, they have some consistency. Unfortunately, courts are treating wrap contracts as contracts, not notices. 

So, what’s the difference between a contract and a notice?  The big difference is that the enforceability of a notice depends upon the notice giver’s existing entitlements, i.e. property or proprietorship rights whereas a contract requires consent.

If I put a sign on my yard that says, Keep off the grass, I can enforce that sign under property and tort law.  As long as the sign has to do with something that is entirely within my property rights to unilaterally establish, it’s enforceable.  If the sign said, however, ‘Keep off the grass or you have to pay me $50” – well that’s a different matter entirely.  That would require a contract because now it involves your property rights.

Privacy policies are more like notices – and should be treated as such even if they are in the form of a contract (such as a little clickbox that accompanies a hyperlink that says TERMS).   If a company wants to elevate a notice to a contract, it should require a lot more than that simple click.  Because the fact is, contract law currently does require the user to do more than click – it requires the user to read pages and pages of terms spread across multiple pages – at a cost of 76 days a year.  The standard form contract starts to look a lot less efficient when viewed from the user’s perspective.

[Nancy Kim]

 

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