Is contracting for the collection, use, and transfer of data like contracting for the sale of a horse or a car or licensing a piece of software? Many are concerned that conventional principles of contract law are inadequate when some consumers may not know or misperceive the full consequences of their transactions. Such concerns have led to proposals for reform that deviate significantly from general rules of contract law. However, the merits of these proposals rest in part on testable empirical claims. We explore some of these claims using a hand-collected data set of privacy policies that dictate the terms of the collection, use, transfer, and security of personal data. We explore the extent to which those terms differ across markets before and after the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). We find that compliance with the GDPR varies across markets in intuitive ways, indicating that firms take advantage of the flexibility offered by a contractual approach even when they must also comply with mandatory rules. We also compare terms offered to more and less sophisticated subjects to see whether firms may exploit information barriers by offering less favorable terms to more vulnerable subjects.
Standard-form contracting is the engine of the mass-market economy, yet we know little about what drives it and what factors are associated with its evolution. Understanding change and innovation of the substance, length, and complexity of fine print in the consumer context can help regulators identify sources of potential intervention as well as help them evaluate the effectiveness of mandatory disclosure regimes, which are commonly used as consumer protection tools. This Article studies the rate, direction, and determinants of change in consumer standard-form contracting. We examine what changed between 2003 and 2010 in the terms of 264 mass-market consumer software license agreements. Thirty-nine percent of contracts materially changed at least one term, and some changed as many as fourteen terms. The average contract became more pro-seller as well as several hundred words longer. The increase in length is not due to the use of simpler language. Contract readability has been constant: The average contract is as readable as an article in a scientific journal. The variance of contract length has grown, as has the variance in overall pro-seller bias, resulting in reduced contract standardization over time. Firms that were younger, larger, or growing, as well as firms with inhouse counsel, were more likely to change existing terms and to introduce new terms to take advantage of technological and market developments. Contracts appear to respond to litigation outcomes: Terms that were increasingly enforced by courts were more frequently used in contracts, and vice-versa. The results indicate that software license agreements are relatively dynamic and shaped by multiple factors over time. We discuss potential consumer protection implications as a result of the increased length and complexity of contracts over time.