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Friday, November 22, 2013

Wrap Contracts Symposium, Part VII: Theresa Amato

This is the seventh in a series of posts on Nancy Kim's Wrap Contracts: Foundations and Ramifications (Oxford UP 2013). 

Amato

Our seventh guest blogger, Theresa Amato, is the executive director Citizen Works which she started with Ralph Nader in 2001. After earning her degrees from Harvard University and the New York University School of Law, where she was a Root-Tilden Scholar, Amato clerked in the Southern District of New York for the Honorable Robert W. Sweet. She was a consultant to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (Human Rights First) and wrote an influential human rights report on child canecutters in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She then became the youngest litigator at Public Citizen Litigation Group, where she was the Director of the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse in Washington D.C.  In 1993, Amato founded the nationally-recognized, Illinois-based Citizen Advocacy Center and served as its executive director for eight years. She currently serves as its Board President.  Most recently, she has launched Fair Contracts.org to reform the fine print in standard form contracts.  In 2009, The New Press (New York) published her book, Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny.  She also appears prominently in the Sundance-selected and Academy Awards short-listed documentary “An Unreasonable Man.”  

Nancy Kim

“Yes,” writes Professor Nancy S. Kim. “As strange as it may seem, under contract law you can legally bind yourself without knowing it.”

Contract law experts nod in accord, some in resignation or with ennui.  Non-lawyers are instead completely shocked when I describe this reality.   They have no idea that by visiting a website, sending an email, tweeting or posting, or any of these now common, everyday acts that they are giving consent to use those services and are therefore binding themselves to the various “terms of use” – even if they may have only “constructive” and not actual notice of them. 

In her valuable book, Wrap Contracts, Foundations and Ramifications, Professor Kim does a service to all by explaining how courts enforce these online contracts “where consumers have no intent of entering into a contract.”  She points out that “[t]he requirement of manifestation of consent seems to be subsumed in wrap contract cases with the issue of notice.”  As a result, “the nondrafting party does not actually need to either receive notice or understand or intend the meaning attributed by the courts to a particular action.”

Court decisions to date have favored corporate vendors over consumers whose actual online navigating experience using these products and services covered by “wrap contracts” is given insufficient acknowledgement.  No consumer wants to fill out an online form only to be then told to click somewhere else to find buried terms of use, thereby putting at risk the time they have spent entering data to confirm the transaction.    Nonetheless, as Kim concludes:

courts have constructed consent in an entirely unreasonable fashion by twisting doctrinal rules, conjuring up notice, inferring action from inaction, and blithely ignoring the central role of intent in contracts.  They engage in this hocus pocus in order to enforce transactions that they believe provide a net benefit to society.

These “wrap contracts” consumers often unknowingly “agree” to may be buried in the hyperlinks and are not merely proprietary instructions for how to use the product or service.  As Professor Kim explains,   consumers are not only under affirmative obligations in these “wrap contracts,” they may be subject to a smorgasbord of rights-reducing language.   Exclusive jurisdiction, forced arbitration, waived class actions, and the vendor’s one-way reserved rights to change the terms whenever it wants to are aggressive consumer rights reducers, often eviscerating decades of public policy and legal decisions that have afforded consumers their rights.  In some cases, consumers are agreeing to muzzle themselves from complaining about the product or service.  Fine print contracts may not only strip mine the legal rights of consumers, but they can also take or “steal” their property and privacy. 

Wrap ContractsThank you, Professor Kim for spelling it out for all to read.  Not only do consumers not need a pen to sign on a dotted line, or in some cases even a button to click that one “agrees” to terms certainly not read, but “wrap contracts” take it even further.  Consumers don’t even need to know they are agreeing, much less to what set of terms.  Nonetheless, “wrap contracts,” now often “multi-wrap contracts,” as Professor Kim notes, “by their form, permit companies to impose more objectionable terms than paper contracts of adhesion.”

When people begin to understand how their rights are treated in the “wrap contract” rabbit hole, this offends sensibilities.  For those not attuned to the “degradation of consent,” so aptly explained in Professor Margaret Jane Radin’s book Boilerplate, The Fine Print, Vanishing Rights, and The Rule of Law, this sort of contract peonage is not only unwelcome, it runs counter to everything the non-drafting parties think of as fair play. 

Professor Kim’s use of the term “crook provisions” should not be understated and aligns with popular sentiment when consumers are fully informed of this state of affairs.  Companies now grant themselves the right to “appropriate” -- once known otherwise as “stealing” or, charitably, “taking”-- from consumers for no payment.  They then turn around and make a profit on what heretofore we would have considered the possessions of the consumer, e.g. their content, images, personal information and shopping habits. 

As Professor Kim explains:  “a crook provision anticipates no such offensive action by the consumer and has no direct relationship with the product or services offered by the company.  It is simply an attempt to sneak an entitlement from the user without payment, either in terms of money or goodwill.”     Indeed.

So where is the counteraction to this outright mugging of consumer rights and property?  The ubiquity of these contracts has masked the reality of their potential to do serious harm to consumers such that consumers are not even aware of the magnitude of the problem.   

Kim notes that “What we call something matters.” I agree, and after reading her parade of horrible online scenarios in Chapter 10, “Contracts in Wonderland,” and just how far afield these “wrap contracts” are from the fundamental principles of contract law, I started thinking of new labels for these “wrap contracts” and their innocuous, almost blasé sounding, “terms of use.”  

For lack of a better term at the moment, I think we should nonetheless stop calling them “contracts” and start treating them as the equivalent of “online asbestos.”  Like asbestos in its heyday, manufacturers and service providers use “wrap contracts” everywhere.  They have properties that facilitate commerce but that does not mean that they are not toxic and dangerous for those exposed to them. 

Moreover, like asbestos, some of the dangers will not necessarily emerge for decades when content thieves and data aggregators use consumer information to the detriment of the consumers.  Perhaps due attention will be paid when the content providers, i.e. the consumers/users, begin to realize they cannot expunge those posts from their teens or more uncensored moments that now prevent them from getting hired or getting credit.   Or perhaps regulators will begin to pay sufficient attention to the one-sided misappropriations when serious amounts of data are compromised by those with criminal intent (already it is happening) and with frequency for millions of users.

The question is, how long will it take for U.S.  regulation and the courts to catch up to the need to ban or strictly limit the use of these offensive sword and crook provisions? For asbestos it took at least half a century, while manufacturers whined the whole way about regulation even as they knew for decades of its dangers much as “wrap contract” apologists do now.  No, these “contracts” may not kill you, but they can make your life miserable and we would all breathe better if consumers were treated more fairly. 

Though “online asbestos” may sound hyperbolic in academic circles, there needs to be a massive push back on behalf of consumers – for the nomenclature does matter.  “Terms of use” and “wrap contracts” sound far too innocuous when we know that people do not realize they are being exposed to, and through buried notices alone “agreeing” to, the dangerous loss of their rights and the theft of their property.   To get organized, as we at Fair Contracts educate about and encourage, the tide will not turn until people are fully aware of what happens when they alight on a website.  Ubiquity, harmonization of users, inertia, facility, consumer biases, are all operating to the detriment of consumers and to the advantage of corporate profit seekers.

Professor Kim’s doctrinal adjustments (“a duty to draft reasonably; replacing blanket assents with specific assent; considering contract function when apply existing doctrinal rules, and reinvigorating unconscionability”) are a very solid start, though they are only a beginning.  In some cases, such as replacing blanket assent with specific assents, the proposed remedy may only devolve into the Pavlovian clicking response now exercised by consumers with routine oblivion to the consequences, believing they have little choice if they want the product or service behind the click.  

Courts should be helping consumers enforce their intent, not creating doctrinal chaos as Kim writes by reciting, “law that originates from the paper-based contracting world to this brave new digitally based world when they might be better off acknowledging the difference that contract form and function make to the reasonable expectations of the parties.”  The courts have instead largely given corporations a judicial pass thus far and Professor Kim’s rebalancing of burdens (from the nondrafting party to the drafting party) is the least that they could begin to impose to adjust the invocation of the judicial force of the state.

I think we should be asking for much more on behalf of consumers and could take cues from other countries with more advanced notions of consumer protection and data privacy.  Not only should legislators, regulators and courts protect consumers from exposure to online asbestos by outright banning, or at minimum reforming, many of these harmful provisions, but corporations who have taken rights from consumers should also be required to begin remediation efforts – immediately.  These corporations can start by returning the misappropriated property and other stolen goods to their rightful owners.      

[Posted, on Theresa Amato's behalf, by JT]

 

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