Can’t Read Your ISP’s Service Pact?

Privacy advocates around the U.S. poured considerable outrage on Comcast Corp. last week, after discovering that the cable ISP was logging the IP addresses and Web surfing activities of its users. But the broader point here may be that ISPs’ terms of service (TOS) agreements — also known as an acceptable use policy (AUP) — are too difficult to read, according to one expert.

While Comcast said it utilized the practice to improve network efficiencies, the privacy groups blasted the company for not warning customers of the practice.

Bowing to the widespread criticism, Comcast scrapped the program. But here’s the thing: Comcast officials maintained users did know of the policy; it was right there in the AUP.

Every Internet user knows what an AUP is; it’s one of those long-winded legal documents just about everyone skims through and scrolls down to get to the “I Accept” button to download a program from the Internet. For most, it’s a hassle and gets in the way the download.

Every ISP, broadband or dial-up, in the U.S. has one. It’s what protects owners and executives from liability in case of damages (physical and mental) caused by exposure to the Internet like email-born viruses, access to questionable Web sites and the download of illegal files.

Dr. Mark Hochhauser, a readability consultant and Comcast subscriber who has read and analyzed the AUPs of several of the most popular cable ISPs, explained that even he had trouble understanding those agreements because the documents were full of legal jargon, run-on sentences and confusing vocabulary.

“The terms of service are apparently written to protect the company, not to inform the customer,” Hochhauser said about Comcast’s AUP. “I understand that customers have a responsibility to read the terms of service, but shouldn’t companies have a responsibility to present that information in ways that can be understood without having a law degree?”

Web-specific gaffes, like putting sentences in ALL CAPS (which, as any Internet- and email-savvy technophile will tell you, is extremely bad etiquette), hinders the message the documents are intended to address.

Hochhauser ran a gamut of readability tests on Comcast’s Web page, and the Web pages of other broadband ISPs, and here’s what he came up with:

Words Sentences Reading Level Sentence Complexity* Vocabulary Complexity*
* Complexity grade
of 100

Comcast officials declined to talk to about the company’s AUP, and representatives from the other ISPs mentioned were not available at press time for comment.

But Hochhauser’s findings raise the question, why are the people who bring us the Internet seemingly making it so difficult to understand what they’re doing behind the scenes? Hochhauser believes it’s a customer support issue that will take executives overcoming their lawyer’s fear of litigation to resolve.

“There’s an old joke about the two problems with legal writing, the style and the content,” he said. “It really is a customer relations issue. Until they realize that, and until they make serious efforts to improve how they communicate in writing with their customers, not much will change.”

To immediately improve the readability of their Web sites, Hochhauser suggests the following easy fixes to AUPs:

  • Use common everyday terms. Avoid as much technical and legal jargon as
  • Use “you” and other pronouns; write for the reader
  • Write using the active voice, instead of the passive
  • Use short sentences
  • Use charts, graphs, and tables to explain complicated information
  • Use bullet lists instead of long paragraphs with clauses separated by
    colons and semicolons
  • Use a question and answer format instead of just topic headings
  • Use a font size that’s legible to middle-aged eyes
  • Organize the information in a meaningful way instead of just listing 15 key topics.

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