January 27, 2009

Do You Agree That We Ask for Your Consent?

I just finished filing my federal taxes with H&R Block’s free e-filing (which I highly recommend, by the way), and at the end I encountered some rather confusing language. After submitting my return, I came to a page asking if I consented to let H&R Block use my information for marketing purposes. (I always wonder who explicitly consents to such things—who honestly says, “Yes, please try to sell me more of your tax-related products and services!”?) Unfortunately, I can’t get back to the page now, so I’ll have to reconstruct it from memory.

At the top it explained that they were requesting permission to use the information provided in my return to inform me of other stuff that I might be interested in purchasing from them. Then there was a paragraph saying something like “I, Jonathon, hereby consent to blah blah blah.” Next to this paragraph there was a check box. I took this to mean that by checking the box, I was allowing them to use my information. By leaving it unchecked, I was not. Pretty clear and straightforward so far.

Below this paragraph were two buttons, labelled “I Disagree” and “I Agree”, respectively. And here I paused for a little while, trying to figure out what exactly I was potentially agreeing or disagreeing with. Was I agreeing or disagreeing with the entire process of giving or not giving my consent? But the whole process was essentially an implicit question—can we use your information to try to sell you stuff?—and you can’t agree or disagree with a question, because it has no truth value to either confirm or deny. And anyway, if you could disagree with it, you’d just be agreeing to answer the question in the negative by refusing to answer it in the affirmative. I thought that perhaps I was reading it a little too literally, but I asked my wife what she thought about it, and she was similarly perplexed.

I finally figured out what they were really after when I moused over each button to see what appeared in my browser’s status bar. The disagree button had something about withholding consent or whatnot, so I decided that that was the option I wanted. In other words, it appears that the check box was entirely superfluous (though maybe it wasn’t—I don’t actually know what would have happened if I’d checked it and clicked “I Disagree” or left it unchecked and clicked “I Agree”), and the buttons were providing the wrong answers to the implicit question being asked. Of course, “I Agree” could have worked if it had not been answering an implicit question but rather a proposed course of action: “I agree to give my consent.” However, this does not work in the negative, producing the ungrammatical *I disagree to give my consent.

This problem wasn’t quite as troublesome as Geoffrey Pullum’s latest run-in with bad interfaces, but the basic problem is the same: the buttons don’t make a lick of sense by themselves because of fundamental breakdowns in semantics, and the user is left with no recourse but to take a stab at it and hope they got it right.

Semantics 5 Replies to “Do You Agree That We Ask for Your Consent?”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


5 thoughts on “Do You Agree That We Ask for Your Consent?

    Author’s gravatar

    This may well be deliberate.

    Author’s gravatar

    That did cross my mind, but I wasn’t sure that the confusion would really help them much. And anyway, how’s that saying go? Something like “Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence” or some much.

    Author’s gravatar

    Wow, that’s horrible.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence” most assuredly does not apply to anything having to do with taxes. Evil is always assumed.

    Author’s gravatar

    Ah, yes. How silly of me to forget that.

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