Do You Read Online Terms and Conditions? You Should and Here’s Why
“The Internet is a Real Place with Real Consequences” (Rebecca MacKinnon, Internet policy expert)
We live in an age of online commerce. We buy and sell pretty much anything you can think of on the Internet, whilst contracting online for everything from an Uber ride to a plumber’s call out has become second nature.
So we should all know just how important it is to take note of those annoying little tick boxes saying things like “I agree to the terms and conditions available here” (with of course a hyperlink under the “here” leading you to a list of terms and conditions as long as your arm).
An interesting case recently before the High Court illustrates.
“I’ve won R5m” thought the online gambler
A regular visitor to a bookmaker’s online sports betting website was overjoyed when, after placing over 530 bets over an 8 month period, and for a stake of only R100, he successfully picked the winners in 8 different horse races.
His betting slip showed a “total possible payment” of R4,841,728 and that, thought the gambler, was exactly what he’d won (actually it would have been over R5m before tax).
Imagine his disappointment and distress when the bookmaker paid him only R1m, referring him to its online standard terms and conditions. Clause 9, pointed out the bookmaker, was headed “Maximum Payout” and imposed on every customer a daily winnings limit of R1m.
Unwilling to go down without a fight, the punter sued the bookmaker for the full amount. He hadn’t, he said, read the Ts and Cs (he is no doubt in very good company in that, which is indeed the point of this article) and anyway they were, he argued, overridden by the express reference on his betting slip to the full amount.
Let the signer beware
Unfortunately for him his luck had well and truly run out. The Court dismissed his claim with costs, holding that the “total possible payout” figure quoted on the betting slip could not entitle him to a payout in conflict with the daily limit.
Central to the Court’s decision was its finding that the gambler, when he opened his account on the site, must have ticked a box agreeing to the bookmaker’s standard terms and conditions. “When signing the document by placing an electronic tick in the box”, held the Court, “the applicant placed himself in the same position as a person who had physically signed the document. He is bound by the maxim caveat subscriptor [‘let the signer beware’], whether or not he actually took the trouble to read the terms”.
There’s a strong warning there to all of us – when the chips are down (so to speak) ticking those “I agree to the terms and conditions” boxes online binds you to them. You can’t try to evade them later on by saying “I didn’t actually read and understand them before agreeing – no one ever does”. You’re probably thinking “life’s too short to read all that gumpf”. But then pick your times to be cavalier about it, and when there’s a lot at stake rather take the time to read and understand what you’re agreeing to. Get legal advice in any doubt.
But wait, there’s more (a caution for online product and service providers)
This is an area of law still being explored by our courts, and particularly in these days of strong consumer protections, online service and product providers should note that the bookmaker’s case was bolstered by additional facts, two of them in particular –
1. The punter had been exposed to specific warnings about the limits imposed on winnings both before every bet (i.e. more than 530 times) and thereafter on every betting slip,
2. He always had easy access to the full Ts and Cs via a clickable icon.
Hence the Court’s conclusion that the bookmaker “takes all reasonable steps to ensure that the client assents to the terms and conditions before the account is opened and both prior and subsequent to the placing of any bet the punter is told about the limits on winnings.”
Perhaps the bookmaker would have won his case anyway on nothing more than the tick box and the “signer beware” principle, but on a better-safe-than-sorry basis online providers should perhaps follow the bookmaker’s lead on that one and not rely entirely on a one-off tick in a tick box.