Proposed solution

We have made considerable efforts to find solutions to the the problem of non-accessible online legal texts.

Online legal texts are usually called "Terms of Service", "Terms of Use", "Privacy Policy", "Terms and Conditions" or something similar.

CommonTerms proposes a system where website owners can summarize their own terms in one screen, in a standardized way.

Main components of our beta proposal for such a system:

  1. A common format for one-screen summaries (previews) of Terms & Conditions.
  2. A database of common terms – including a defined workflow for additions and edits.
  3. An online tool – “Preview generator” - which website owners can use to create their own preview.

Here's a visual overview:
CommonTerms beta proposal
Important CommonTerms components. (Click for larger version.)

Our proposal explores some aspects of the five kinds of efforts needed to overcome the fine print obstacle.

In some more detail

click to expand"Preview terms" button

The alpha tests made it clear that website owners need be able to control the appearance of the “preview terms” button. The buttons should not be more dominant on the screen than the conversion button (“create account”, “submit order” et cetera) but still large enough to be seen. A suitable design for the button will vary depending on the context. We have been working primarily with grayscale colors, for this reason, but perhaps we will need to add some colors too.

At the same time, it is important that we try to keep the buttons somewhat similar, because we do want users to recognize the symbol and to know what to expect from a “preview terms” button.

Different preview buttons offered

Current selection of buttons - subject to change

click to expandStandardize selection and ordering of topics
The CMU Privacy Label project showed that a standardized selection, ordering and presentation of privacy terms can significantly enhance accessibility. We believe this conclusion applies to terms in general, and not only privacy policies.

Based on our research we have made the following selection of seven topics:

  1. Business model
  2. Payment and Cancellation
  3. Agreement details
  4. Content and Copyright
  5. Privacy and Security
  6. User restrictions
  7. Certificates and Guarantees
click to expandStandardize icons for each topic
In order for users to more easily be able to locate the relevant topics, a set of icons representing each topic has been developed.

The icons used in our beta version
One of the icons is for terms that have not yet been assigned a topic

In contrast with the Privacy Label approach, where only ordering and terminology is specified, we think icons should be added. Not for every single term, but for the topics used to sort the terms, as a navigational aid.

There are often a greater number of terms that need to be presented than can be shown on a single (possibly mobile) screen, so scrolling may be necessary. If you have to scroll, the relative position will not always be apparent. Therefore an extra navigational aid, such as recognizable icons, should make it easier to browse the preview.

Of course, icons should harmonize as much as possible with existing conventions. We believe the above icons are if not intuitive, at least not counter-intuitive to most users. But before going from beta to 1.0 this assumption should be verified.

click to expandStandardize brief labels for common terms
Originally, we thought icons could be created for all of the most common terms. After our initial study, we think the diversity, complexity and changing nature of online terms make brief textual labels more practical.

Again, we plan to use existing formulations wherever possible.

The curation of the database of common terms is a very large, but not infinite, task, where a lot of work remains to be done. Can you help find the resources needed? We do have a tool for moderation of this database, but need to employ lawyers to use it.

click to expandStandardize legal text defining each label
Just as with Creative commons, every human readable text label should have a corresponding textual definition. This definition should still be human readable, but also lawyer readable. Every label is clickable. Details shown after clicking a label
Here, the user clicked a label: Description and some metadata about the term is displayed.
click to expandStandardize translations
One of the great values of standardization is that translations can be provided in many languages.

The terms of one online service could be rendered in another language than the original agreement, providing greater accessibility not only to non-lawyers but also to people with a different native language.

click to expandAllow visibly identifiable non-standard terms

It will not be possible to standardize everything.

Therefore, we propose that providers be able to put whatever terms they want in their own previews.

Screen capture from generator: user can add terms.

Users can add terms and categories anywhere in the hierarchy. The “generator” allows the user to add terms.

But users should be able to easily see who uses mostly common terms and who uses their own terms. Therefore, non-standard entries should also be visually distinguishable from standardized ones.

Non-standard term.

Right now, non-standard terms are highlighted with a shadow. This is subject to change.

Read more

More details can be found in Fighting the Biggest Lie on the Internet - CommonTerms Beta Proposal (PDF, 1MB).

If you are interested in the project, don't hesitate to contact us or follow us in social media so you don't miss our updates, public presentations and other news.

draft preview