Unpacking “the Biggest Lie on the Internet”: Assessing the Length of Terms of Service and Privacy Policies for 70 Digital Services

17 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2022

See all articles by Jonathan A. Obar

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Date Written: June 1, 2022


This is a working version of a report available at www.biggestlieonline.com. This report is part of a larger project unpacking the reasons people agree to terms of service and privacy policies without accessing, reading, or understanding them.

When signing up for a digital service, who gives people the most to read?

“I agree to the terms and conditions” is known as “the biggest lie on the internet”. This suggests people often click “agree” before reading and understanding digital service policies (such as terms of service and privacy policies). The length of policies may contribute to these ignoring behaviours. But how long are the policies?

This report assesses the length and reading time for the privacy and terms of service policies of 70 digital services, including: social media services, popular apps, Canadian and American internet service providers (ISPs), and Canadian and American banks.

Key Findings

• Overall, the privacy policies and terms of service across various digital services present individuals with a considerable amount to read.

• 57 of 70 services require an hour or more for the reading of both the terms of service and privacy policy materials. 34 of 70 services require two hours or more.

• Some policy materials are extremely long, requiring a considerable amount of time to read. For example, TELUS has policy materials reaching 123,049 words, which would take 10.2 hours to read.

• SaskTel’s 86,804 words would take 7.1 hours to read, and Bell Aliant’s 85,089 words 6.8 hours.

• Twitter’s policies would take 6.7 hours to read, while Airbnb’s would take 4.9 hours.

• American ISPs tended to have the longest policies, with AT&T’s massive 383,077 policy words requiring 30.7 hours, while Verizon and CenturyLink’s would require 9.6 and 8.2 hours respectively.

• For the banks, in both Canada and the U.S., Tangerine’s policies were the longest with 67,988 words, requiring 5.4 hours.

• Some digital services did provide shorter policies, including Amazon 6,137 words, 0.5 hours to read; Netflix 6,576 words, 0.5 hours; Fongo Mobile 9,470 words, 0.8 hours; Manulife 7,436 words, 0.6 hours; Bank of NY Mellon 5,536 words, 0.4 hours; and PNC 2,791 words, 0.2 hours.

• Some variation suggests services are trying to figure out how much policy text to provide; however, most services assessed appear to provide people with a lot to read – likely a prohibitive amount.

Keywords: Privacy, privacy policy, terms of service, transparency, online consent

Suggested Citation

Obar, Jonathan A., Unpacking “the Biggest Lie on the Internet”: Assessing the Length of Terms of Service and Privacy Policies for 70 Digital Services (June 1, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4293363 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4293363

Jonathan A. Obar (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

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