Consumers caught in web of small print doublespeak

Mon, Jan 24, 2011, 00:00

Shoppers should not be confronted with baffling terms when they make an online purchase

I WAS SITTING on a train coming back to London after a board meeting in Cardiff. Life felt good: the meeting had ended a bit earlier than I’d feared and I was just getting stuck into a gin and tonic and a packet of Quavers when the ticket inspector came round. I handed her my ticket, which she pronounced not valid.

I had, in fact, booked on a slightly later train, but as the train I was on was cheaper than the one I’d paid for, I’d assumed all would be fine.

Alas, it was not fine. Not only did I now have to spend £91 on the most expensive ticket available, I was not entitled to a refund for the ticket I had bought already.

I handed over my credit card, grumbling.

It’s all in the terms and conditions, she said, an unpleasantly officious tone to her voice.

There were six pages of them on the website, she told me, I must have ticked a box saying I’d read them. “They are there to protect you, madam.”

Maybe it was the gin. Maybe it was the fact that the meeting had been a long one. But I found myself bellowing: “Nonsense. They are there to protect First Great Western.”

She handed me the new ticket, and I went on ranting at her retreating back: “I bet there isn’t a single person in this carriage – or on the whole blinking train – who’s read them.”

I glanced at my fellow travellers who were shrinking into their seats and staring resolutely at their laptops to avoid the ugly embarrassment of a shouting woman.

When I got home, I did look at the terms and conditions.

There were at least six pages of them – as many words as would fill nine of these columns end to end, not a phrase among them that I would ever use.

It began: “Customers using this website are advised that those pages with a web address prefixed by www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk are managed by First Great Western Limited [First Great Western] and, as such, First Great Western is responsible for the content, detail and links contained within them.”

I don’t think I have ever read a more baffling, boring or repetitive sentence. Who else might be managing the website? Mary Poppins?

It’s not just First Great Western that talks to customers like this. Every online transaction is covered by soporific legalese, which customers are required to claim that they’ve read and agree to.

In the past couple of days, I have perjured myself many times over. When I downloaded a free book by Edith Wharton on iBooks, I had to pretend I’d read 24 pages of small print.

When I bought a ticket to go to the cinema, I agreed to 51 paragraphs. I glanced at these briefly and my eye alighted on the unenlightening phrase: “‘Call centre’ means our telephone sales and enquiries call centre.”

Had I actually read all of this stuff I would have had no time left to read Edith Wharton or see the film. I would also have been in a minority of about one.

Last year, as an April Fool’s prank, video game retailer Gamestation put up spoof terms and conditions on its website which committed customers to selling their souls.

“Should we wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 [five] working days of receiving written notification from gamestation.co.uk or one of its duly authorised minions.”

On that day, 7,500 customers made a purchase from the site.

Every single one ticked the box claiming they accepted the conditions, but no one noticed a thing.

The point, said the company, was to remind everyone that the devil was in the detail and that they ought to pay attention.

This is quite the wrong point to draw. The right point is that the current arrangement is profoundly consumer unfriendly and makes casual liars of us all.

When I go to the ticket counter to buy a cinema ticket, I’m not presented with a short booklet of rules that I have to sign. So why do I have to do it online?

Internet consumers should not have to read six pages of boring nonsense every time they buy anything.

If there are any terms and conditions that actually matter, they should be written in plain language on the first page. Everything else should be shelved.

Just in case there are any lawyers out there who do not understand this column, let me make it easier for them.

“Terms and conditions” mean terms and conditions. And “pointless” means pointless. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011)