back to article Small print is ignored and needs a rethink, govt study says

Information requirements are an irritant for business and consumers routinely ignore the small print overload because it is turgid and confusing, according to a Government study. A new report calls for a rethink by policy-makers and businesses. Consumers do make buying decisions they are happy with, according to the …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    small print is there to protect the company

    but of course. why else do we say "always read the small print". if anyone actually did, and furthermore fully understood the tiny type, no-one would ever sign up for anything.

    small print translates as "i know i am getting screwed over, but i am going to sign anyway".

  2. Ash

    Really? The sky is up, you say?

    May as well read "Stupid people confused by long words, govt study says"

    I agree with the sentiment, but with today's litigeous culture i'm not sure everyone's trying to one-up each other with grossly complicated terms and shrink-wrap contracts. Got to cover your back agasint the lowest common denominator, and that's getting lower by the day.

  3. Peter Fielden-Weston


    "information provided with a product or a contract is so lengthy or confusing we simply disregard it." That's what it is supposed to do. If we could actually read & understand this rubbish we would probably not touch the product with a barge pole.

    "This information is expensive to provide, costing business over £1.5bn a year and simply confuses consumers." Companies spend a lot of money on these words. Do you actually think that they COULDN'T get an easy to read version if they WANTED one? 'They' have spent their money and, so far, seem happy with the results.

    I find it incredible that, in this day & age, people still think that businesses are their friends. Business is there to make money. they do that by getting the most money out of the customer as possible while giving the customer as little as possible. If the customer could successfully get an item repaired without 3 to 4 months of arguing and solicitors letters or if the customer could successfully sue when the babies bottle warmer boiled the milk, then Businesses profits would drop a little and that would never do.

    So we have contracts that only another solicitor could read (whats wrong? it's written in English isn't it?) and we have warning signs that are totally stupid (on a pack of peanuts - Warning, may contain nuts).

    We do NOT need simpler contracts and product labels, we need a structured law which lays down the fundamental sale of goods contract between producer & customer. We do not need more warnings (Do not try to stop this chainsaw with your genitals) or more paragraphs on the contract.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    When was the last time

    When was the last time you didn't buy something because you had a problem with the small print, eula etc.. most people just ignore it. Is it even a binding contract?

  5. Big_Boomer
    Gates Horns

    Waste of paper/bandwidth

    I get 50 emails per day, all with a "corporate disclaimer" at the bottom.

    I NEVER read them. They are a waste of bandwidth.

    The same goes for software disclaimers.

    About the only time I read any small-print is when taking out a large loan or mortgage. Even then the damned things give me a headache.

    One other related thing that make me laugh is the statement that

    "Ignorance of the Law is no excuse"

    There isn't a Lawyer or Judge in the land who knows ALL of the Laws we have on our statute books, so what chance do the rest of us have?

    An easier way would be to setup a "standard" disclaimer so that people can read it once and from then on will have at least an idea as to what they are agreeing to.

    Whenever I get to one of those I shout at my screen "You can't have my soul, it already belongs to Microsoft".

  6. James Anderson
    IT Angle


    If someone is dumb enough to sign up for a storecard at interest rates that put loan sharks to shame they are not really going to be put of by the "whereas the party of the first part resevrves to right to change part or all of this agreement without prior notice" clause.

    This clause sometimes more subtley worded exists in nearly all the smallprint I have bothered to read recently, and, effectively makes reading smallprint a waste of time. Perhaps they could use paliner wording which people who sign up for storecards could understan.

    "We the capitalist bastards own the rule book and will right whatever rules we want "

  7. Tom Chiverton Silver badge

    Peter Fielden-Weston

    "we need a structured law which lays down the fundamental sale of goods contract between producer & customer"

    We've already got one, the sale of goods act.

  8. Neil Lewis
    Thumb Down

    Even when it IS simple, consumers can't be bothered

    I have run my small business for almost forty years. We keep all booking contracts in very simple, plain English. Even so, consumers just can't be bothered to read the information we provide. Even if we keep agreements as short as a dozen lines and mark out key phrases in bold, red, underlined type, people still don't read them.

    Bald fact based on long experience - consumers get into trouble because they're lazy. No amount of government tweaking will change that.

  9. Chris Hedley Silver badge
    Thumb Down


    The small-print is mostly irrelevant since pretty much every company is going to try its luck screwing its customers anyway. One wonders how a successful business model can be developed where customers are viewed as the enemy, but it seems to be a very popular one.

  10. Trygve
    Thumb Down

    @ Peter Fielden-Weston

    > we have warning signs that are totally stupid (on a pack of peanuts - Warning, may contain nuts)

    And here we have the problem in a nutshell. Peanuts are actually legumes (related to beans) - so potential contamination with nuts is a legitimate concern for people who can eat peanuts, but not actual nuts. But as usual, valuable information is lost in the knee-jerk rantings of the ill-educated and ill-informed.

    Small print is usually there for a reason. Either pay attention to it, or make a decision to ignore it and accept the consequences. The Consumer Credit Act 1974 and the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 are good examples.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If we keep protecting the stupid...

    ...eventually, they'll rule the world.

    What do you mean 'too late'?

  12. alain williams Silver badge

    Need standard contracts

    Many of the things for which these ''agreements'' are made a condition of use can fall into broad categories. There is no reason why UK Citizens' Advice (or similar) could not draw up some clearly worded and fair (on supplier and purchaser) contracts. The variable bits could be in a schedule at the end eg: length of contract, geographic area of support, ... A vendor insisting on something different would need to justify why it neeed something different.

    While we are at it: let's have standard contracts with the banks. Every month or two I get a letter of variation of terms. Why is this needed, it always seems the bank putting in some extra clauses to protect itself.

    There are several things that I have not bought or signed up to because I did not like the agreement: Skype and E-Bay being 2 of them.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another example

    On several occasions I have received a communication from a company on paper asking me to respond either by phone or on their web site. When I try to use the web site I find I am asked to agree to a massive set of terms and conditions, which, at a glance, seem totally unreasonable. So I pick up the phone instead.

    If they are happy to arrange an appointment to replace my gas meter on the phone without me agreeing to 10 million words of terms and conditions, why can't they do the same online?

    In many cases reading the terms and conditions is a waste of time because:

    1. There is a clause in there that lets them change the terms at any time anyway, so what's the point of reading the current version?

    2. In the UK you are protected by legislation anyway.

  14. Phil Endecott

    Buying a stamp online

    It's not possible to buy stamps online - you get a PDF barcode thing to print out and stick on your package. Useful for ebay sellers, for example.

    But you have to agree to terms and conditions the like of which - in terms of their pure volume - I have never seen before. It would literally be quicker for me to walk to the post office and back than to read it all. And if I do buy my stamps in the post office, I'm not required to agree to the same terms and conditions.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ Peter Fielden-Weston

    Oh, now you've done it. Insisted that law be written in a language we can all understand and regulated by a group of people we can all respect. You idiot! Now we're going to have all the lawyers bum-rush El Reg to justify their existence by saying that law has always been confusing and that without lawyers society will fall into anarchy and that if you want a good example of a society without lawyers look at any dictatorship and that they stop meteors from impacting the Earth with their laser eyes and Superman wanted to be a lawyer but he couldn't pass the bar and all sorts of ballyhoo that lawyers make when they feel like their impact or importance is under attack.

    Lawyers are like a bunch of pissy parakeets in a pet shop. Everyone else is trying to have fun loving on the prettier, more friendly birds while the parakeets make sounds that would grate on Helen Keller's nerves only to run away and get pissier when you do try and give them some love.

    Well written law? Well, I never! Didn't you know that government is there to protect big business? Whaaaat? You didn't? Well, it's been that way since the 1970s, mate, when the whole of society deemed that cheap goods and lots of them were what made people happy and not the other unimportant little things like rights universally granted in the first few paragraphs of nearly every constitution or "bill of rights" written in the western world. You silly bugger. Who needs to pursue life and liberty and who cares about freedom of religion when that 42" plasma is now below a thousand dollars and ohmygod have you seen the new Dodge Charger ithasafuckingHemiohmyfuckinggodareyoupayingattention AND THAT CELL PHONE HAS A FUCKING CAMERA IN IT AND I CAN DOWNLOAD RING TONES OF MY FAVORITE SONGS LOOK FUCK EVERYTHING ELSE CONSUMABLE GOODS NOW THAT'S IMPORTANT WHERE CAN I SIGN UP?

  16. Etienne

    There is an fix if there was a will to do so

    Companies have an incentive to make these agreements difficult to read and understand because it lets them have all the terms and conditions their way and prevents consumers from shopping around.

    This could be fixed by holding Companies Legally responsible to the average layman's understanding of the small print would quickly fix the problem.

    How could that be judged? It would be fairly easy for companies defend themselves by showing they had conducted a survey of, say, 100 people and 95 of them understood correctly. Much larger surveys are performed for marketing purposes.

  17. lglethal Silver badge

    You cant blame the companies for this...

    I hate the companies as much as most but you cant blame many of these companies for adding excessive warnings and legalese considering the state of our disgustingly litigious society.

    If the courts stopped awarding huge payouts to idiots who refused to use common sense and either hurt themselves or destroyed/lost something by doing something so blatantly stupid that a 10 year old on smack would know not to do it, then companies wouldnt need to put in all the legalese... So its not the companies fault, its the courts fault for rewarding stupidity and our fault for not kicking up a stink when this whole litigation craze started up...

  18. Chris Donald

    Can't legal documents be interesting to read?

    Can someone explain to me why we need dead dry passive language for this stuff?

    Whether it's legal documents or small print, the language is dull, and tough to read.

    Is there a legal requirement that you must have boring language to describe terms and conditions?

    I pity lawyers, judges and anyone working where they must understand this written shitepile that passes as standard legal terminology. I'm sure that actually we are allowed to use plain descriptive language.

  19. Arthur Coppock

    EU Fair Business Practices

    Maybe some respite here but no doubt HM Gov will implement the bare minimum so to give business every loop-hole they can find - business as usual then?.

    Directive 2005/29/EC on Unfair Commercial Practices was signed by the European Parliament and the Council on 11 May 2005. The Directive aims at enhancing consumers' rights and boosting cross-border trading by harmonising divergent national rules on business-to-consumer commercial practices. The new legislation outlines "sharp practices" which will be prohibited throughout the EU, such as pressure selling, misleading marketing and unfair advertising. Certain rules on advertising to children are also set out. Through this legislation, EU consumers will be given the same protection against aggressive or misleading marketing whether they buy locally or from other Member States' markets. Businesses will benefit from having a clear set of common EU rules to follow, rather than a myriad of divergent national laws and court case rulings, as is currently the case.

    The Directive was published in the Official Journal on 11 June 2005 and its provisions must be applicable in the Member States by 12 December 2007. The Commission is working with the Member States and stakeholders to make sure that the Directive is transposed into national law in a timely and accurate manner.

    The deadline for transposition is 12 June 2007. Several Member States are late in transposing the Directive into their national laws. The Commission will take all necessary steps to address late or inadequate transposition.

  20. James Pickett


    "A government study"

    Well, they should know!

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