Clicking your rights away

Consumer awareness vital in combating corporations' underhanded legal tactics

The Spectrum

The running joke that nobody reads those omnipresent, novel-length "Terms and Conditions" just got a lot less funny.

General Mills, the corporate behemoth behind brands like Yoplait and Bisquick and cereals including Cheerios and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, updated its privacy policy to impose what legal experts call "forced arbitration" on consumers. What this means, essentially, is that any customers receiving benefits from the company would agree to resolve any legal complaints through informal negotiation rather than lawsuits.

The new policy was "announced" to consumers via small font on a thin gray bar across the top of the company's website. With a broad definition of the "benefits" detailed in the new legal terms, any customers joining Facebook groups or entering in sweepstakes would give up their legal right to sue.

It's a frightening prospect, that the simple act of clicking a button on Facebook or downloading a coupon could be construed, via quiet legal finagling, as an agreement to waive consumer rights.

Even worse, General Mills didn't invent class-action waivers and they aren't the first corporation to realize their potential. In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of class-action waivers and since then, multiple companies including AT&T, eBay and Amazon, have slipped arbitration clauses and waivers into their terms of services - terms that consumers rarely read.

Unlike these corporations, General Mills didn't manage to get away with their slippery, legal dealings. After public outcry to The New York Times' article detailing the corporation's new policy, the company revised its guidelines the next day and has now reverted back to its original legal terms.

Despite General Mills' protests that its intentions were "widely misread," the company listened to concerned consumers (and patted themselves on the back with a little self-promotion while doing so), and gave into public demand.

The public won this round, and justifiably so. But since the Supreme Court's 2011 ruling, consumers have already lost multiple battles in a game they didn't know they were playing.

Perhaps it shouldn't be called a game, but a war. After all, the right to sue is more than just a consumer right, but also an effective form of control on companies. The fear of litigation and lawsuits should hover over corporations, especially those that produce the food we eat - not to mention the companies behind the medicine we consume or the cars we drive.

After all, it isn't too much of a leap from General Mills to General Motors, the company currently under investigation for its faulty ignition switches that caused at least 13 deaths and 31 crashes.

When corporations make mistakes, consumers can die. This level of responsibility cries out for a system of checks and balances - a legal system which gives consumers the right to unite and call out companies when they do wrong.

Here's a shocker: that system already exists. General Mills just tried, and failed, to eliminate it. The public noticed the move, the media lambasted it, and for once, the big guys backed down.

The victory is comforting, but let's not get complacent. From now on, it'd be wise to exercise some caution before hitting "like." Maybe it's time to actually read the fine print.