terms of service agreementsThis year has been a critical one for consumer privacy, as a number of shocking discoveries have been made about the online services we use daily. Google, for example, used ambiguous language to obscure that it was tracking user location data, and earlier in the year, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted the degree to which consumer data exchanged hands. While these revelations were surprising, something even more alarming was the extent to which these behaviors were permissible in these companies’ terms of service agreements. This has led to advocates, experts and politicians calling for an overhaul of the current way companies detail their policies.

Out of curiosity, we wanted to see for ourselves what consumers thought of terms of service (ToS) agreements given the stories that dominated this year’s headlines. That’s why we surveyed over 500 individuals* to see if consumers actually read these documents, as well as how they felt user agreements shaped their behavior. Here were some of the takeaways from our investigation:

Most consumers claim to skim or read ToS documents

One of the more interesting insights we discovered was that almost half of all of users (47%) say they read or skim at least “a few” ToS agreements for the services that they use. We consistently found the percentage high within specific segments, too. For example, 50% of those who say they use six to 10 online services daily also said that they read “a few” of the agreements for these services, while 57% of those who use 15 or more services daily said the same.

Users tend to read or skim before signup (but they might not read updates)

Fifty-six percent of consumers say that they read or skim ToS agreements before they sign up for a service, seeming to imply that many users think they’re aware of some of the aspects of the services that they use. It’s worth noting, though, that 44% “occasionally” skim revisions to any agreements and 47% of individuals were not aware of the most recent ToS agreement changes prompted by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, meaning that many users might not be aware of any changes that have been made to the services they use.

While reading or even skimming a ToS agreement before signing up for a service is important, keeping up with revisions is arguably even more important as retroactive changes could impact your relationship with a service without your knowledge. Websites like Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (ToS;DR) and TOSBack can help fill in the gaps that emerge from the constant barrage of terms of service agreement revisions.

30- to 39-year-olds are the most proficient at navigating ToS agreements

This specific age range is the most represented among those who claim to have read “all” or “almost all” of the ToS agreement for the services they use daily, making up 27% of both groups. They also have the highest representation among those who claim to “completely understand” ToS documents (21%).

Consumers aim to “get the gist” of these documents

About 40% of users claim to “get the gist” or most important aspects of ToS documents with most of these users (24%) being in the 18- to 29-year-old age range. Interestingly, the 18- to 29-year-old age group also makes up another 27% of those who read “almost all” of the ToS agreements for the services they use.

People don’t like reading ToS documents for several reasons

Fifty-five percent of consumers say that these documents are too time consuming to read. The next most popular opinion, shared by 11% of people, is that they’re simply too difficult to read. While not everyone agreed on the reasons as to why ToS documents were painful to read, most people (78%) agreed with the sentiment that ToS agreements needed to be revamped to favor the consumer.

But those who read agreements find them useful

Twenty-nine percent of people say that reading a TOoS agreement changed their behavior and 43% said it made them at least somewhat cautious about how they used a service. Another 29% said that knowledge of a ToS agreement actually helped them address problems when contacting support for the service they were using.

Why does this matter?

It’s not surprising that those who read ToS agreements change their behavior or that these documents can be useful when seeking support. While user agreements are a way for companies to shield themselves legally, they also allow users to understand their rights and a company’s guarantees to them as users. That’s why we’ve written a guide designed to highlight the most important sections of a ToS agreement and how you should read them.

For more in-depth analysis of privacy issues affecting you directly, keep reading our privacy blog.

*The survey was written by NextAdvisor and responses were collected through SurveyMonkey on Aug. 17, 2018. The sample consisted of 536 individuals — 286 women and 250 men.