The big problem with small print and why we need to take back control

I don’t know about you, but I have loads of time on my hands.

It’s not like, oh, running a business and bringing up two young kids takes it out of me. Which is why, this week, I decided to use my time productively for a change by catching up on reading the stuff I hadn’t got around to.

I don’t mean work papers or delving into this year’s Booker Prize longlist. No, I mean small print.

You know the stuff: the legalese we have to ‘accept’ to do anything online. The stuff that binds us irrevocably into a serious commercial undertaking committing us to the blood sacrifice of our first born.

That small print.

People don’t read so-called ‘shrink wrap’ contracts. That’s why, with my consumer advocacy hat on at, I believe they must be scrupulously fair to be enforceable. I’d ban sneaky price increases and 15 per cent price hikes, for instance.

But sticklers counter that it’s incumbent on people to read what they’re signing. After all, it only takes a second to scan the key terms, right?

To find out, I started with the renewal agreement for Sky broadband & TV. It wasn’t too onerous. Except prices were going up, and the language was a bit obscure – possibly designed to fool those who do skim it – so I wanted to be thorough.

At least they kept it to 1,163 words. Four minutes I’ll never get back, but I can attest to a strange sense of satisfaction. Like flossing your teeth.

Only, I still didn’t know how to cancel if I changed my mind. So I dug out relevant ‘help’ sections of the website. Those ran just shy of 3,000 words, taking me a further 15 minutes to read, but they yielded up a golden nugget: I could cancel, without penalty, within 14 days.

Forewarned is forearmed, they say. Thus reassured, I went ahead and renewed. And then I decided I’d exercise my right to cancel.

To do that I had to phone the call centre, which took the better part of 30 minutes. But it was what happened next which was the kicker: a passive-aggressive contretemps with an awfully nice but ingeniously uncooperative Scottish lady who kept enticing me with cheaper deals. That took a large gin and tonic to recover from.

So much for expensive paid content, it was time for something free and wholesome. Short form video!

Before downloading TikTok, I did consider reading the reviews. But there are one and a half million of them, and while they’re short, at even five seconds a pop that’s still a year of my life.

So instead I skipped to the good stuff: the Terms of Service, a snip at 4,600 words, or quarter of an hour. Unfortunately that was only the start. The Coins, Rewards, Music Terms of Service, Intellectual Property, Branded Content and Business Terms Policies together totalled over 10,000 words– another half an hour– and I had yet to reach the Privacy Policy, a further 5,000 words into the bargain.

An hour in, and I’ve still not watched a single video of a cat.

I’d previously conceived of TikTok the company as a fun place to work, chock full of Gen Zs drinking flat whites. Now I know it’s actually populated by an army of besuited lawyers who charge by the hour to create a fiendish web of policies that literally nobody apart from me has ever bothered to read.

But my foray had taught me something: I had the right to ask TikTok to share with me a copy of my information, free of charge. That’s known as a subject access request – the right under privacy law to see the data that companies store about you. Its bedfellow is the right to be forgotten – that is, to have all your data deleted at your behest.

Companies do comply with these obligations; I know, I’ve tested it. But you’ll have to write to them to take advantage of such rights, and that is not usually something they make especially easy. (One tip if they don’t make it obvious, use LinkedIn to find out who their chief privacy officer is; there are also plenty of tools to help, along with some great free resources.)

All these data rights, along with the right to cancel a recent contract, are real and enforceable. Taken together, they help to tip the scales just that little bit against the armies of corporate lawyers. But actually taking up these rights costs time.

“Your money or your life,” Dick Turpin, the notorious highwayman, would say to persuade victims to turn out their pockets. It was a threat he underwrote with a blunderbuss – more direct than thousands of words of legal niceties. But the principle is much the same today.

We can just click ‘accept’ and part with our hard-earned cash, oblivious to our implied commitments. Or, should we happen to have an empty day stretching before us, we could take back control by reading everything before we sign it.

Except, of course, we can’t. Because we have jobs, and children, and dishwashers to empty.

So, back in the real world, we cross our fingers and click ‘accept’ for an easy life. And time and again, the highwaymen (now in suits and ties) collect their spoils.

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