The terms and conditions of my “simple” life

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As an information architect who spends a fair amount of time simplifying legal agreements and disclosures, I’ve developed a rather peculiar interest in these artifacts that each of us collect as we go about our lives. And because the world we live in moves so fast and furiously, we can compile quite a collection of artifacts without even noticing.

Maybe you’re wondering how that’s possible. How could you enter into a binding legal agreement without noticing? Sometimes all you have to do is look at something online and you’ve consented to an agreement. Take Amazon for example. I quote, “If you visit or shop at, you accept these conditions.”

So this got me thinking, how many agreements am I a party to? To satisfy this curiosity, I gave myself 90 minutes to hunt down as many agreements, terms of service, terms of use, etc., as I could.

Compared to most 30-somethings, I consider my life to be a fairly simple one. I don’t own a home or a car (i.e., no mortgage, insurance, or lease agreement). I’m single without children (i.e., fewer insurance policies and other legal entanglements). I have one credit card. My only debt is student loans. My life is simple.

Or so I thought.

A 90-minute search returned 53 agreements, totaling almost 400 pages. That’s 100 pages short of a ream of paper! It took me 90 minutes to find these documents, but it would take 90 days to read and digest the information contained within. And that’s the part that leaves me slack-jawed. How is anyone supposed to appreciate and manage this?

Within these 53 agreements, I have legally binding relationships with 34 entities from banks and health insurance companies to shopping web sites and loyalty programs.

If we’re just looking at discrete documents, the longest agreement came from PayPal (the brainchild of a nerd who’d like to make the banking system and international monetary policy obsolete) and totals 22 pages. After PayPal, three companies tie for second with 20-page agreements—AT&T, iTunes and Skype. (Actor Richard Dreyfus recently did a dramatic reading of the iTunes terms of service that rather supports the thoughts I’m expressing here.)

However, some companies have a suite of legal documents that govern their services and products. And when I started tallying those numbers, my mouth went from slack-jawed to completely agape. To use iGoogle, Gmail and YouTube, I’m bound by five documents, totaling 25 pages. To have a basic checking and savings account with Bank of America, I’m bound by three documents, totaling 38 pages! And that doesn’t even include the terms and conditions from Visa for my Bank of America debit card, because I ran out of time before I could track it down (but I did appreciate a very concise, simply worded clarity commitment that they recently mailed to me).

So just with those 11 agreements, I’m legally entangled in some of the largest corporations of our time—AT&T, Apple, Bank of America, Google and Microsoft. If something goes awry under one of these agreements, who do you think will come out on top? Me, the nerdy information architect with a penchant for legal agreements, or the behemoth corporation with fleets of lawyers on retainer? Don’t get me wrong. Not all lawyers are bad. In fact, the smart companies have lawyers who advocate clarity and they’re all the better for it.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this investigation when I figure out how many of the agreements ask me to waive my right to sue in court.

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