Oct 202011

Why are Internet Terms of Service usually so hard to read? Some lawyers will tell you that they need to be written in precise, lawyerly, language to protect the provider against legal claims from its users. And, it’s probably true that terms written in that very precise language may protect the provider in some cases where terms written in plain English won’t.

However, that precision comes at a cost: most people find that very precise legal-speak very hard to read. So, those terms won’t help if you actually want to communicate your expectations to your users. And, if they understand your expectations, maybe they won’t want to bring that claim to begin with.  So, instead of thinking about terms as a legal fortress around a service, it might be a good idea to think of them as a trade-off between protecting your legal needs and effectively communicating with your users.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that terms of service should be sloppy or not well-thought through.  It’s still possible to write well, and precisely, in everyday language (or, at least, in language that’s close to everyday language). And an occasional legal term won’t necessarily destroy the readability of the terms.

I’ve attached a sample “Plain English” Terms of Service on the Resources page to demonstrate how Terms of Service don’t have to be written in legal-speak. These terms cover the seven basic concepts listed in this blog post while still being readable enough for most people to understand. Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid legal language entirely, but I think it’s better than most Internet terms I’ve seen.