The Duty to Read the Unreadable
42 Pages Posted: 14 Jan 2019 Last revised: 5 Dec 2019
Date Written: January 11, 2019
The duty to read doctrine is a well-recognized building block of U.S. contract law. Under this doctrine, contracting parties are held responsible for the written terms of their contract, whether or not they actually read them. The application of the duty to read is especially interesting in the context of consumer contracts, which consumers generally do not read.
Under U.S. law, courts routinely impose this doctrine on consumers. However, the application of this doctrine to consumer contracts is unilateral. While consumers are expected and presumed to read their contracts, suppliers are generally not required to offer readable contracts. This asymmetry creates a serious public policy challenge. Put simply, consumers might be expected to read contracts that are, in fact, rather unreadable. This, in turn, undermines market efficiency and raises fairness concerns.
Many scholars have suggested that consumer contracts are indeed written in a way that dissuades consumers from reading them. This Article aims to empirically test whether this concern is justified. The Article focuses on the readability of an important and prevalent type of consumer agreement: the sign-in-wrap contract. Such contracts, which have already been the focal point of many legal battles, are routinely accepted by consumers when signing up for popular websites such as Facebook, Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb.
The Article applies well-established linguistic readability tests to the 500 most popular websites in the U.S. that use sign-in-wrap agreements. The results of this Article indicate, inter alia, that the average readability level of these agreements is comparable to the usual score of articles in academic journals, which typically do not target the general public. These disturbing empirical findings hence have significant implications on the design of consumer contract law.
Keywords: sign-in-wrap contracts, consumer contracts, duty to read, contracts' readability, information asymmetry, informed consumers
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