What’s in the small print?

Online shopping is big business with millions of transactions taking place every day worldwide, but do we know exactly what we’re signing ourselves up to? Dr Joasia Luzak investigates the provision of information and what it means to be transparent. 

Every online trader operating within the European Union is required to provide consumers with ‘clear’ and ‘transparent’ information about the transaction to ensure the customer is aware of the contractual agreement taking place. This is a duty of the trader and is in place to protect not only the customer, but to also ensure traders are complying with the law. Despite this legal requirement, there are currently no agreed standards or guidelines in place to define what transparent information looks or sounds like. This grey area leaves the topic of transparency open to interpretation and potentially abuse, leaving traders and consumers alike at risk.

Funded by the Open Research Area (ORA), Dr. Joasia Luzak, Associate Professor of Law at Exeter University is the principal investigator of a new three-year international study aimed at addressing this issue. With a multi-disciplinary, multi-national team behind her, Dr. Luzak leads on this exciting project undertaking comparative and empirical legal research in order to develop clear guidelines that will better protect all those involved.

Having grown up with her mother working as a Polish language teacher, Dr. Luzak has always been aware of how people can play with language to manipulate it’s meaning and subsequently people’s understanding of it. That’s why this project not only focuses on what’s being said, but how what’s being said is provided. The aim is to develop guidelines that will also offer recommendations on font type, font size, colour, layout and the general user journey as each of these factors contribute to whether or not the information is understood, or read at all. 

Dr. Luzak explained, “I’ve always been interested in the provision of information. I read a lot and I read fast, but even knowing the consequences, as a consumer I rarely read the provisions provided. Some academics argue we should lose all this information because it doesn’t do anything. However, if there is a problem, being able to go back to the contract and seeing what you agreed to is paramount.” The project, which has been running since September 2016 has already delivered some interesting results that indicate there are ways to ensure more people will read and understand the information being provided.

The project team works from both Germany and the Netherlands. The team in Germany, led by Professor Alexander Wulf (SRH Hochschule Berlin) has completed a literature review that looked at what is considered effective provision of information across a multitude of disciplines including communications, neurosciences and psychology. There appears to me a huge amount of information on provisions, but very little when it comes to the transparency of providing them. This section of the project has already generated some interesting insights for which a paper is being drafted.

To fully understand what is meant by transparent information, it is important to also review current perceptions. To do this, an interview questionnaire has been devised to determine the current understanding of what is required to be legally compliant in this area. This will be used to question consumer authorities, consumer organisations, employees of the Ministry of Justice and traders associations across England, Germany, Poland and potentially the Netherlands to gain Pan-European insight. Dr. Luzak is also working with the help of a post-graduate student who will be using this questionnaire to conduct interviews in Croatia. As a relatively new member of the EU and having a less developed knowledge of consumer law, this is set to add an interesting element to the project. In context to Brexit negotiations, the project is unlikely to be affected given that the aim is to create guidance where nothing currently exists. The second part of the empirical research will devise a consumer survey to examine their perception of transparency.