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Ancestry’s complex terms of service

There’s a great deal of research that’s been done in the past few years about terms of service not being readily understandable by the average adult reader. The view in general is that terms of use, or terms of service, are written in legal gobbledygook that most folks can’t begin to wrap their heads around.1

This is a big deal, because — remember — “terms of use are the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it. The phrase ‘terms of use’ isn’t defined in legal dictionaries…. Wikipedia says terms of use, terms of service and terms & conditions are all the same thing (they are) and defines the phrase as ‘rules which one must agree to abide by in order to use a service.’ That’s a pretty fair definition.”2 In other words, this is our contract with Ancestry as users of its services.

And since the terms of our contracts can, and often do, change, it’s our job to try to check out the changes. Even though — sigh — most of us don’t.3

So when someone who’s actively looking still can’t find a change in the terms, it’s — well — a big deal.

The Legal Genealogist noticed, on or shortly after 10 May 2021 that Ancestry had changed the effective date on its terms of use.4

I did what I normally do: I ran a compare program, comparing the language of the 10 May 2021 terms (here) against the language of the last version, dated 23 September 2020 (from the Wayback Machine, here).

And I got a bit of a surprise. Because they’re word-for-word identical.

Figured I must have made an error in capturing the language. Recaptured, re-ran the compare and — word-for-word identical.

Okay — Where’s Waldo? Where in the world was the change?

Where's Waldo

Sent a note to Ancestry. “We’ll get back to you.”

Sent another note to Ancestry. “We’ll get back to you.”

Send a third note to Ancestry: “In May, Ancestry updated its terms and conditions as it relates to our renewal and cancellation terms. These changes standardize the timelines for actions like seeking a refund or cancelling a subscription across our Ancestry subscriptions and customers.”5

Now… in fairness to Ancestry, a couple of points here:

1. Starting in April 2021, the terms of service page had a note at the top reading: “Our Renewal and Cancellation Terms are changing, effective 7 May 2021. Click here to view the new terms.”6

2. The terms of service do reference the fact that there are other parts to our contract with them, “each of which are incorporated herein by reference.”7

3. The May 2021 change is just to “standardize the timelines for actions like seeking a refund or cancelling a subscription across our Ancestry subscriptions and customers.”

None of which excuses the fact that the structure of the terms of service makes a change like this ridiculously hard to find.

First off, there are now officially five parts to our contract with Ancestry that we have to agree to, to use the services:

Terms and conditions
Cookie Policy
Renewal and Cancellation Terms
Ancestry Community Rules
Privacy Statement

Second, not all the component parts change at the same time — and we don’t get the same notice of the changes. For example, those renewal terms were the only part that changed in May and the main terms and conditions page is the only place where the May date is entered. You couldn’t figure out what changed by looking at the dates at the other pages — because they don’t all have dates. There isn’t a date at all on the page with those renewal terms. There’s also no date on the community rule page, so heaven only knows when it last changed.

But the cookie policy apparently did change in October 2020, according to a date on that page. That’s after the prior date change on the main terms and conditions page in September 2020, yet that page date didn’t budge until this recent renewal terms change.

I don’t recall seeing a notice on the main Ancestry home page that there was a pending change in the terms of service for either of these last two changes. I can’t say it wasn’t there — I can only say that I didn’t see (or notice) one, and I try to pay attention to those notices. I can absolutely say, thanks to the Wayback Machine, that the main terms and condition page didn’t say a thing about that October 2020 change in the cookie policy on or before the day it was made.

Now… most of these changes aren’t the types of huge changes that might make a user run screaming into the night rather than continuing to use the service.

But as customers we deserve better:

• The main terms and conditions page needs to reflect all of the constituent parts of the contract in a clear fashion — a bulleted list would do it.

• Each constituent part should reflect its last-changed date on that main terms and conditions page.

• Each constituent part should reflect its last-changed date on the page for that part.

• Every change to every constituent part should be announced in advanced and highlighted prominently — not just on that page and not just on the terms and conditions page but rather on Ancestry’s main page.

Keeping up with changes we have to live with shouldn’t require us to launch a hunt.

Asking customers to play “Where’s Waldo?” with contract terms isn’t good customer relations.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Where’s Waldo in Ancestry’s TOS,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 15 June 2021).


Image: William Murphy via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

  1. See e.g. Dustin Patar, “Most Online ‘Terms of Service’ Are Incomprehensible to Adults, Study Finds,” posted 12 Feb 2019, Tech by Vice ( : accessed 15 June 2021).
  2. Judy G. Russell, “Reprise: a terms of use primer,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 15 June 2021).
  3. Caroline Cakebread, “You’re not alone, no one reads terms of service agreements,” posted 15 Nov 2017, Business Insider ( : accessed 15 June 2021).
  4. See Ancestry Terms and Conditions, eff. 10 May 2021, ( : accessed 15 June 2021).
  5. Katherine Wylie, Senior Specialist, Corporate Communications,, email to author, 8 June 2021.
  6. Ancestry Terms and Conditions, eff. 7 Apr 2021, via Wayback Machine ( : accessed 15 June 2021).
  7. Ibid.
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