Select Page

Read those terms before you click

It’s been a few months since The Legal Genealogist focused on terms of use, or terms of service, which means a whole host of user questions have come in with the usual plaint.

“But nobody told me that!”



They really did.

And we have to be better online consumers if we don’t want to be caught in that trap.

terms of use

The latest question was from a customer of one of the DNA companies complaining about a refund policy. I sent the reader the exact language of the policy. And got the expected reply: “that quoted policy is not provided to the consumers upon Contracting… ”



It really is.

But we have to read it.

So here’s the reminder, one more time:

There are terms of use, or terms of service, or terms and conditions, or the rules of the road that govern each and every single solitary website we visit.

And we make a big mistake when we simply toss a checkmark into the box that appears for us to indicate we’ve read, understand and agree to those terms… when in fact we haven’t read them, don’t understand them, and wouldn’t necessarily agree to them at all.

Terms of use, remember, are the limits somebody who owns something we want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let us see or copy or use it. These are limits that are different from copyright protection, since the law says what is and isn’t copyrighted and we can own a thing without owning the copyright. So this isn’t copyright law; it’s contract law — we and whoever owns the thing we want to see or copy or use reach a deal: a website lets us access the site and its information and we agree to use it only in the ways the website says we can.1

The phrase “terms of use” isn’t defined in the old legal dictionaries. The closest they come is the definition of “use” by Black to include “the right given to any one to make a gratuitous use of a thing belonging to another.”2 Wikipedia, without citing a source, says terms of use, terms of service and terms & conditions are all the same thing (they are) and defines the phrase as “the legal agreements between a service provider and a person who wants to use that service. The person must agree to abide by the terms of service in order to use the offered service.”3 That’s a pretty fair definition.

But, we might be thinking, if this is a set of rules, how can it be considered a contract? Nobody gave us a choice about the rules when we subscribed to, say, or or when we did a DNA test with, say,, did they?

Actually, they did. Exactly the same kind of choice we have in a lot of things in life: take it or leave it. When we created an account with one of the many services we use around the web, commercial and non-commercial, there comes a point in the join-up or subscription process where there’s a button or a check box or something. It always says something like the example shown in the graphic: if we click on it or check the box, we’ve agreed to be bound by what the terms of use are.

It’s a little like our relationship with the TSA. We don’t have to go through security at the airport. Of course, that means we don’t fly, either.

Of all the websites we as genealogists ever use, the ones where the terms of use are most critical are the websites dealing with our DNA. That’s because terms of use don’t just dictate rules about refunds, as in today’s reader’s case, or only control what we can do on the website — they also control what the website owners can do with our information: the information deep within our personal, individual, genetic codes.

On these — and on all websites we use and especially those where we provide personal information — we should never ever ever just check the box. Whether it’s the first time we’re signing up for a website or service or whether we’re being asked — as we so often are — that we agree to a change in the terms of use, our practice always has to be the same.

In every case… not so fast.

Read. Understand. And check only if we agree.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Not so fast!,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 10 Feb 2021).


  1. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Reprise: a terms of use primer,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 10 Feb 2020).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1204, “use.”
  3. Wikipedia (, “terms of service,” rev. 8 Dec 2020.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email