Most of us have, at one point or other in our lives, interacted online
with a product or a brand. Whether it’s “liking” a brand’s
Facebook page, entering a contest or using an online coupon, it’s
something that goes hand in hand with today’s Internet connected
An important question, though, is whether we’re giving up any rights
when we engage in this kind of ordinary online behavior. A recent article in the
New York Times pointed to a disturbing trend among product manufacturers, who have begun
adding language to their websites’ privacy policies and terms of
use which suggest consumers are giving up their right to sue when they
interact with the company by any number of online means.
The article noted that General Mills had added language to their website
legal terms that indicate consumers who have received any kind of benefit
through their use of the company’s website or online community and
who then have a dispute with the company related to the purchase or use
of any of General Mill’s products can only seek relief through arbitration.
The legal terms posted on the General Mills site were very broad and included
a binding arbitration clause as well as a class action waiver. The activities
which constituted a consumer’s agreement to the legal terms included
not only specific activities such as joining their online community, downloading
coupons, entering contests, redeeming promotional offers and subscribing
to General Mills newsletters but also the more general activity of using
General Mills’ websites.
The New York Times has since reported that General Mills has
withdrawn these controversial legal terms from its website as a result of online consumer outcry, but consumers
may want to consider these events a cautionary tale. Most major company
websites include terms of service and, as General Mills’ actions
show, companies may not be adverse to inserting legal terms into their
sites which may prove disadvantageous to the consumer.