Online Shopping: What's Buried in the Fine Print?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on February 04, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When you're shopping online, do you actually read the fine print? If you don't, you're not alone, according to a new survey by

A majority of online shoppers -- 54 percent -- say they either skim or ignore online user agreements, terms of service, or other legal fine print they encounter. On the other hand, 46 percent of shoppers say they read "most" or "every word" of such agreements.

The survey results are nearly identical to a similar FindLaw survey in 2011 -- though since that time, the online shopping market has grown by 50 percent to $300 billion. This suggests many online shoppers may not really know what they're getting themselves into.

What's In the Fine Print?

So what's typically buried in the fine print that most online shoppers ignore? Here are a few common examples of what you might be missing:

  • Arbitration clauses. If a dispute arises, online agreements often require users to pursue arbitration instead of a lawsuit. This may limit a consumer's ability to seek relief from the court system, as some arbitration rulings cannot be appealed.
  • Refund and return policies. What happens if you're not satisfied with the purchase you made? The legal fine print may only offer store credit, or may impose a specific time frame for returns and refund requests.
  • Ownership v. purchase of a license. E-book owners may be surprised to learn they're actually purchasing a license to read digital books; e-book licensees typically can't share or give away their e-books to relatives or friends.

Are These Agreements Enforceable?

Though many courts have upheld online agreements, regardless if the consumer has read them or not, one recent ruling suggests that not all types of online fine print will pass the test.

A federal appeals court in August held that an online bookseller's customer agreement -- which was buried behind a link hidden on its website -- did not give consumers sufficient notice of the legal terms they were supposedly agreeing to. That made those terms unenforceable in the eyes of the court.

To learn more about consumer rights, check out FindLaw's section on Consumer Protection. If you have questions about legal fine print, and especially if you're involved in an online shopping dispute, an experienced consumer protection lawyer can help you figure out your best course of action.

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