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beware of the FINE PRINT

4/3/2013

Even Cityview takes advantage of fine print disclaimers, such as in the annual April Fool’s issue where almost every page came with a warning at the bottom of the page letting readers know the issue was merely “gibberish” in the spirit of the holiday.

Even Cityview takes advantage of fine print disclaimers, such as in the annual April Fool’s issue where almost every page came with a warning at the bottom of the page letting readers know the issue was merely “gibberish” in the spirit of the holiday.

With every tap on the key board, a 21st century journalist can’t help but ask herself: What is the point? Many people these days don’t like to read. As odd a thing that is to read, it’s an even more off-putting thing to write. And it’s an unfortunate fact to acknowledge. As inconvenient, time-consuming and mundane as reading can be in this fast-paced and attention-deficient world, some words are important down to the first and last syllable. Some words can create binding contracts that, if we fail to understand, might have more hold over us, our lives, our property and our likeness than we realize. Yet we often agree to them unknowingly and fail to read those oh-so important “terms of use.”

“These agreements are supposedly ‘legally binding,’ but at the same time, they frequently lose in court due to their completely unfriendly legalese and the fact that no one reads them,” said Cityview “Tech Talk” writer and creative media specialist Patrick Boberg.

It doesn’t take a tech guru like Boberg or a business savvy tycoon to realize one important piece of wisdom: Even when things are considered “free,” there’s always a price. With subscriptions and downloads, the price could hit your bank account; with technology and convenience, the trade-off is often your privacy; and at the pharmacy, the price could be your life. So we decided to take a magnifying glass to a few such fine print caveats to reveal some perhaps unsavory truths about which businesses — whether they want to or not — are required by law, or for their own liability protection, to inform their consumers. We’ll even go first:

 

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1.Cityview

In last week’s issue, you had to be truly observant to notice the fine print at the bottom of each page signifying the contents of the issue as complete April Foolery. It read: “Does anyone believe this gibberish?” That let our readers know that what they were reading was merely satire, not news. Or perhaps more honestly, it lets the judge know that should someone decide to sue us.

But the April Fools issue is meant in good-natured tradition — a way to poke fun at current events, ourselves and at the gullible readers out there. But the fine print isn’t reserved strictly for the April Fools issue. Every week it stakes copyright and trademark claims in our masthead on page three. One part reads: “Cityview is not responsible for unsolicited manuscripts. All letters received become the property of the publisher. We reserve the right to print letters in condensed form and to edit them for libel.”

On the Rapsheet page, where we print the mug shots of six unfortunate Polk County Jail inmates, it states in small print: “Published arrest charges are obtained from official law enforcement records, which are available to the public. All who are charged are innocent until proven guilty.” And several of the advertisements that appear within our pages have fine print “clarifications” of their own.

But here are a few other areas, where the print should perhaps be bolder, as the cost to cosumers is surely more grave.

                 

2. Medications

People love their prescription meds — well, at least a lot of people do. Global spending on prescription drugs has risen to $602 billion a year, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical information and consulting company. Much of those sales, $252 billion annually, come from Americans. Yes, we love our drugs.

Forbes.com says meds for cholesterol, heart disease and heartburn are the top three in worldwide sales — Lipitor, Plavix and Nexium, respectively. You don’t have to be prescribed to them to recognize those big names.

Most of us are familiar at least with their advertisements. The commercials on TV show a happy, older man or woman or couple enjoying life under a shining sun, laughing in a green meadow or flirting on a romantic beach — enjoying every moment now that they have the drugs they needed to remedy what ailed them. While our eyes are mesmerized by these comforting images, our ears might easily tune out a soothing voice casually running through a couple paragraphs of disclaimers, warnings and side-effects.

Let’s look at Plavix, for example. Plavix is a blood-thinning medication produced by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis used to treat heart disease. At $5.9 billion in annual sales and a 16 percent annual growth, it’s the second-highest drug sold in the world, according to Forbes.com. While it may treat and even prevent heart disease, its main active ingredient, clopidogrel, can cause serious side effects, including:

CVA_04PAGE 16nosebleed or other bleeding that will not stop;

bloody or tarry stools and blood in your urine;

coughing up blood or vomit that looks like coffee grounds;

chest pain or heavy feeling, pain spreading to the arm or shoulder, nausea, sweating, general ill feeling;

sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body;

sudden headache, confusion, problems with vision, speech or balance;

pale skin, weakness, fever or jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes); or

easy bruising, unusual bleeding (nose, mouth, vagina or rectum) and purple or red pinpoint spots under your skin.

Gross. And that’s what they inform patients in the tiny print at the bottom of the screen (which most of its users can’t read even with their tri-focals) and at a speed of what seems like a thousand words-per-second rattled off on the radio commercials. Here are a few more strictly for the doctors to know, according to Drugs.com:

Of the 17,500 patients evaluated for safety, only 9,000 used the drug for one year or longer;

Approximately 13 percent of patients withdraw from treatment because of adverse side effects; and

Nearly all of the risks are similar if not equal to those of aspirin.

In case you were wondering, online searches reveal Plavix costs anywhere from $55-$83 for 28 tablets. A bottle of aspirin, including about 100 doses, runs between $2 and $5 at a local grocery store.

                 

3. Paypal

PayPal users received the online payment company’s email last fall announcing “updates” to its user agreements — this after years of settling class-action lawsuits with unsatisfied customers who accused PayPal of placing illegal restrictions on their accounts. As a result, PayPal’s email last fall warned it will take away users’ right to sue the company in court. The only way one can avoid agreeing to these terms is by sending PayPal a letter in writing (funny, PayPal’s announcement could be handled electronically but for a consumer to opt out it must be done only by snail mail) within 30 days.

CVA_04PAGE 172According to Des Moines attorney Eric Updegraff, opt-out provisions are another way for lawyers and bigger companies to put the responsibility of customer dissatisfaction on the consumer, who they know most likely did not read the terms of the agreement.

“It’s not fair,” Updegraff said. “Is it legal? Yes. But fair?

“My opinion is that it’s a little bit facetious to put a clause in the agreement assuming people aren’t reading it in the first place.”

PayPal’s parent, eBay, sent out an almost identical notice to its customers months earlier, according to consumerist.com. Since then, several other companies have followed PayPal’s move toward arbitration, which is when disputes are settled between lawyers or certified experts rather than in class-action lawsuits in court.

“Mandatory arbitration, along with a restriction on bringing class-action lawsuits, represents an attempt by companies to win a free ‘get-out-of jail free’ card because companies can’t be held accountable for cheating you,” executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates Ira Rheingold was quoted as saying. “Unlike going to court, arbitration is secret and has no appeals process.”

CVA_04PAGE 18Many businesses and their lawyers claim it’s a more efficient way to resolve customer problems, but opposers argue the process is skewed toward the side with the most money and resources, which means the odds are against the already frustrated consumer. Further, class-action suits allow consumers to join forces on claims that they probably couldn’t afford to fight alone.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to both,” Updegraff explained. “In District Court, you’re going to have to wait in a long line with a lot of other people. Arbitration is faster but a lot more expensive. In Iowa it costs $185 to file a class-action lawsuit, but a lawsuit more than $300 might take you $3,000 to process in arbitration, making it pretty much impossible for consumers to bring a lawsuit for a small amount of damages.

“It’s a way for bigger companies to limit their liability when they do mass harm to consumers, so they can do a small amount of damage to a lot of people.”

More and more businesses, big and small, are drafting arbitration clauses into their terms of use. One such example is the popular photo-sharing site, Instagram.

 

4. Instagram

When Facebook bought the photo-sharing social website Instagram in late 2013, new terms were established allowing the company to use people’s uploaded images without permission and without compensation, which stirred a controversy even the most technologically out-of-touch nursing home residents likely heard about.

“We knew that by teaming up with Facebook, we could build a better Instagram for you. We’ve been collaborating with Facebook’s team on ways to do just that,” states Instagram’s new Privacy Policy. “As part of our new collaboration, we’ve learned that by being able to share insights and information with each other, we can build better experiences for our users.

“We’re updating our Privacy Policy to highlight this new collaboration, but we want to make sure you understand that you still have control over who sees your photos. You still get to choose who can see your Instagram photos, and you still get to choose whether you post your photos on Facebook. So while we’re looking forward to working closely with Facebook to build better experiences, we aren’t changing the core features of the app that you’ve come to know and love.”

It seems Instagram execs love you more than you love Instagram. Like many “terms of use” links located at the bottom of almost every web site, Instagram’s is about three Internet pages deep and more than 10,000 words long. (That’s almost as many words as the average issue of Cityview.) Here’s a portion of what it says: “To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

“It’s entirely possible that you and I could find our faces plastered across billboards associated with something you want nothing to do with,” Fordham University law professor Susan Scafidi was quoted in the Washington Post. “This is basically asking everyone using Instagram to waive their right of publicity.”

On Jan. 19, Instagram’s “terms of use” changes became official. It now states that Instagram does not claim ownership over users’ photos posted on its site. However, by signing into Instagram — by creating a user account — users are “granting” Instagram a “non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable worldwide license to use your photos.”

Basically, you’re agreeing to share your ownership with them, Updegraff said.

CVA_04PAGE 17“It’s like lending them your car. They don’t own the car, but they can drive it whenever they want,” Updegraff said.

Continue through the web of web pages to the Privacy Policy. You’ll find that Instagram shares its users’ information and content with (including but not limited to, information from cookies, log files, device identifiers, location data and usage data) with businesses that are legally part of the same group of companies that Instagram is part of and its affiliates, as well as third-parties such as advertisers. They say it’s so they can better target advertisements to the appropriate consumers based on cyber profiling.

“It is an extremely covert way of stripping users of their privacy and using their Internet history for business use,” explained Boberg.

“To a certain extent there’s sort of a benevolent, good purpose to this: getting products to the consumers who want them,” Updegraff assured. “But the question is, what goes on behind the scenes?”

Or rather, in the fine print? CV

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