Look Before You Click: The Enforceability of Website and Smartphone App Terms and Conditions

by Kevin Conroy and John Shope

Legal Analysis

Modern technology allows individuals to conduct an ever-increasing number of activities through websites and internet-connected smartphone apps.  The proprietors of those platforms frequently make their use subject to terms and conditions, some of which—such as arbitration clauses, forum selection clauses, waivers, licenses, and indemnification provisions—carry potentially significant legal consequences.  Most users will not have read the terms and, in some instances, may not have even seen the terms or any reference to them.  Do these terms amount to an enforceable contract?  In at least some circumstances, the answer may be “no.”  Answering the question in particular cases involves fact-intensive analysis and potential evidentiary challenges.  Businesses offering such platforms, and their counsel, should be aware of these complexities and take precautions to maximize the likelihood that courts will enforce their terms.

The First Circuit and the Massachusetts Appeals Court have addressed this issue in cases involving the terms and conditions of a ride-sharing app and an email account.  See Cullinane v. Uber Techs., Inc., 893 F.3d. 53 (1st Cir. 2018); Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., 83 Mass. App. Ct. 565 (2013).  In each case, the court concluded that users were not bound by the terms and conditions.  Cullinane, 893 F.3d at 64; Ajemian, 83 Mass. App. Ct. at 575-76.  Both courts employed a two-part test to assess whether the terms at issue amounted to an enforceable contract, asking: (1) whether the terms were “reasonably communicated” to the user, and (2) whether the terms were accepted by the user.  Ajemian, 83 Mass. App. Ct. at 574-75; Cullinane, 893 F.3d at 62 (citing Ajemian).  This two-part test is consistent with the approach taken by other courts around the country.  E.g., Meyer v. Uber Techs., Inc., 868 F.3d 66, 76 (2d Cir. 2017) (applying California law and articulating the test on a motion to compel arbitration as whether “the notice of the arbitration provision [contained in the terms] was reasonably conspicuous and manifestation of assent unambiguous as a matter of law.”).

A Spectrum of User Interfaces

Analysis of whether the requirements of “reasonable communication” and “acceptance” are satisfied begins with the interface presented to the user.  While the possible variations are endless, interface designs tend to fall within three general categories, often referred to as “clickwrap,” “browsewrap,” and “sign-in-wrap” (sometimes called “hybridwrap”).  In “clickwrap” interfaces, the user is required to take a distinct, affirmative action to indicate assent to the terms, such as checking a box or clicking a button stating “I agree.”  Courts considering this category of interface generally have little trouble finding the necessary notice and assent.  E.g., Wickberg v. Lyft, Inc., 356 F. Supp. 3d 179, 184 (D. Mass. 2018).

On the other end of the spectrum is “browsewrap,” where a user receives notice of the terms only by means of a link at the bottom of the webpage (often undifferentiated from other links) or buried in the menus or settings of an app.  A typical browsewrap interface does not offer any notice outside of the terms themselves that the user is purportedly agreeing to be bound.  Nor does it offer the user any reason to follow the link and read the terms.  Courts generally find that browsewrap interfaces do not create enforceable agreements.  See Ajemian, 83 Mass. App. Ct. at 576 (“[W]e have found no case where [a forum selection clause] has been enforced in a browsewrap agreement”).

The question becomes more complicated and fact-intensive in the case of “sign-in-wrap” interfaces, where the user is informed that signing in, creating an account, or taking some other specified action (but not an action distinct from the user’s intended use of the website or app) will signify assent to the terms, which are often available by following a link within or adjacent to the text of the notice.  In such cases, the enforceability of the terms depends on how clearly the interface design notifies the user that he or she will be bound by taking the specified action.  Compare Cullinane, 893 F.3d at 64 (finding that the design of Uber’s account creation interface did not provide adequate notice to user) with Meyer, 868 F.3d at 79 (assessing a different version of Uber’s account creation interface and finding that the design did provide adequate notice).

The Importance of Good Design

Several common design features of “sign-in-wrap” interfaces have received judicial attention in determining issues of enforceability.  While courts do not demand perfection, incorporating multiple design features that promote notice of the terms and make clear the user’s manifestation of assent will increase the likelihood that the terms will be enforced.

Clearly important are the size and color of the language informing the user that proceeding will signify agreement to the terms and the link to the terms.  Making these elements as large as other elements on the screen (preferably larger) and in a color that contrasts with the background so as to promote their readability will bolster the argument that the terms were reasonably communicated to the user.  A perception that the notice or link is hidden in tiny or otherwise difficult-to-read font may cause a court to find that the user did not have adequate notice.  Compare Meyer, 868 F.3d at 78-79 (enforcing terms where text notifying user that creating account would signify assent to the terms, although small, was clearly visible, in contrasting color on an uncluttered screen) with Cullinane, 893 F.3d at 62-64 (holding terms unenforceable in part because the notification appeared in a dark gray, small, non-bold font on a black background and because the screen contained many other elements in equal or larger font size).

The design of the interface should also make obvious to the user that the full content of the terms are available to read by following a link.  See Cullinane, 893 F.3d at 63 (questioning “whether a reasonable user would have been aware that the gray rectangular box was actually a hyperlink”).  Although blue underlined text may be the quintessential indicator of a hyperlink, other appearances may also be adequate, so long as they are sufficiently differentiated from the surrounding text.  E.g., Wickberg v. Lyft, Inc., 356 F. Supp. 3d 179, 181 (D. Mass. 2018) (pink, non-underlined link); Selden v. Airbnb, Inc., No. 16-cv-00933 (D.D.C. Nov. 1, 2016) (red, non-underlined links).

The placement of the notice and link are also important.  If the notice and link appear above the button a user clicks to proceed, a user reading from top to bottom would encounter these elements, and have an opportunity to investigate the linked terms, before encountering the button to proceed.  Courts have also enforced terms where the notice and link are placed below, but in reasonable proximity to, the relevant button.  Compare Meyer, 868 F.3d at 78 (finding that placement of the notification text and link directly below the relevant button, immediately visible without any scrolling, contributed to enforceability of terms) with Specht v. Netscape Communs. Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 23 (2d Cir. 2002) (not enforcing terms where reference to the terms would have been visible “only if [the user] had scrolled down to the next screen”); see also McKee v. Audible, Inc., No. CV 17-1941-GW(Ex), 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174278, at *27-28 (C.D. Cal. July 17, 2017) (placement of notice and link to terms at the bottom of the screen “approximately 30-40% of the screen’s length below” the button to proceed, separated by a horizontal line, contributed to inadequate notice).

Placing the notice and link below the relevant button creates another potential obstacle to enforcement of the terms:  if the screen prompts the user to enter information such as a username, password, or email address, users on a smartphone or tablet may see a software keyboard appear on the screen when they begin to enter the requested information.  Because this software keyboard generally appears at the bottom of the screen, it may obscure the notice and link.  At least one court has found that this contributed to lack of the necessary notice, see McKee, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174278, at *27-28, although it is reasonable to argue that what matters is what the user sees before he or she engages the keyboard.

Courts also give attention to the particular words used to inform the user that proceeding will signify assent to the terms.  If the user is not required to take any action to assent to the terms other than the actions inherent in the ordinary use of the website or app (such as signing in or creating an account), the consequences of that action should be clear to the user.  One way to accomplish this is to match the language of the notice to the action the user takes.  For example, if the user is required to click a button labelled “Create Account,” the notice should inform the user that “by clicking ‘Create Account’ you indicate acceptance of our terms and conditions.”  Where the words used for the notice do not parallel the description of the action, a court may question whether it is sufficiently clear to a user that he or she is assenting to the terms by taking that action.  See, e.g., TopstepTrader, LLC v. OneUp Trader, LLC, No. 17 C 4412, (N.D. Ill. Apr. 18, 2018) (declining to enforce terms where user clicked a button labelled “Sign Up,” accompanied by a statement reading “I agree to the terms and conditions,” because the website “gave the user no explicit warning that by clicking the ‘Sign Up’ button, the user agreed to the [t]erms”); see also McKee, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174278, at *22-23 (identifying lack of parallel wording as a factor weighing against enforcement of the terms); but see Meyer, 868 F.3d at 80 (“Although the warning text used the term ‘creat[e]’ instead of ‘register,’ as the button was marked, the physical proximity of the notice to the register button and the placement of the language in the registration flow make clear to the user that the linked terms pertain to the action the user is about to take.”).

Finally, the timing and context in which the terms are presented can also contribute to the enforceability of the terms.  Several courts have observed that, where the terms are presented in conjunction with a purchase or the creation of an account involving a transactional relationship, an average user is more likely to understand that the transaction or relationship will be subject to the terms.  See Meyer, 868 F.3d at 80 (“The transactional context of the parties’ dealings reinforces our conclusion.”); Selden v. Airbnb, Inc., No. 16-cv-00933 (D.D.C. Nov. 1, 2016) (“The act of contracting for consumer services online is now commonplace in the American economy.  Any reasonably-active adult consumer will almost certainly appreciate that by signing up for a particular service, he or she is accepting the terms and conditions of the provider.”).

Litigation Challenges

Litigating the question of whether a user is bound by the terms of a website or app can present challenges beyond analyzing the interface type and design choices.  Because the party seeking to enforce the terms bears the burden to prove adequate notice and manifestation of assent, that party (often the proprietor of the website or app) will need to present evidence of what the user actually saw and did.  Where that party is seeking to enforce an arbitration or forum selection clause, it will likely want to satisfy this burden early in the case, before conducting discovery.

The proponent of the terms thus should maintain records of when the user accessed the website or app and what it looked like at those times.  Because websites and apps are occasionally redesigned, and terms are occasionally updated, simply presenting screenshots of the current version of the website or app is unlikely to satisfy the burden of establishing what the user saw and did.  Instead, the proponent of the terms must be prepared to establish when the user took the relevant action on the website or app, what the operative version of the website or app looked like at that time, and which version of its terms were presented to the user.  Providing such evidence may be particularly challenging depending on the amount of time that has passed and the ability of the proponent to access or recreate historic versions of the website or app.

Presenting evidence of how the interface appeared to a particular user may be further complicated if the appearance varied based on the device used to access it.  A website, for example, may appear differently when viewed on a laptop or desktop computer screen than when viewed on a smartphone.  The differing screen size may affect what is immediately visible to the user without scrolling and the relative conspicuousness of the notice and terms vis-à-vis other elements.  In the case of smartphone users, there might also be meaningful variation in the appearance of the interface depending on the size of the phone used.  See, e.g., Cullinane, 893 F.3d at 56 n.3 (noting the 3.5 inch screen size of the iPhone used to access the app in question and reproducing the screenshots in the opinion to correspond to that size).  Inability to identify the device used could prevent early enforcement of an arbitration clause or forum selection clause and require further discovery.  Conversely, the party challenging the terms might argue insufficient notice by offering competing evidence as to what he or she saw when using the website or app.  For example, even if the proponent can establish that the user accessed the website on a desktop computer, the user may have done so in a browser window that occupied less than the full screen, changing the appearance of the interface and potentially the adequacy of the notice.  A user will not, however, avoid enforcement of the terms simply by asserting that he or she does not recall seeing notice of the terms or did not read the terms.

Conclusion

Given the potential consequences of enforcement of terms, such as application of an arbitration clause foreclosing a class action, challenges to enforcement will likely continue to arise.  Prudent counsel will do well to guard against such challenges through recommending careful design choices and electronic records retention.

John A. Shope is a partner in the Boston office of Foley Hoag, where he specializes in class action defense, consumer law, and commercial arbitration. He also serves as an arbitrator for the AAA and CPR.

Kevin J. Conroy is a litigation associate Boston office of Foley Hoag. Kevin focuses on complex business disputes and shareholder disputes.



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