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Consumer Reports: Small print in online agreements

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Posted at 8:39 AM, May 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-31 09:39:33-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF/CONSUMER REPORTS) — How many times have you used an app or a website or signed an agreement and not even looked at the fine print?

We all do it. But there's a danger in that.

Most of us just click “I agree” and start downloading. But if you actually read those very tiny words, you might be surprised at what you’re agreeing to and what you may be signing away.

Can you guess what app makes you agree not to develop, “design or manufacture nuclear …weapons” when you accept their terms?

“Apple iTunes!” said Consumer Reports' Justin Brookman.

That’s right — Apple iTunes. Brookman is an expert in consumer privacy and technology law and sees a lot of wacky clauses hidden in user agreements.

“You promise not to “get drunk on” Tumblr’s usernames… What does that even mean?” said Brookman.

And this one “...in the case of a viral infection that causes human corpses to reanimate …and likely to result in the fall of …civilization.” Translation?

“It means in the event of a zombie apocalypse, Amazon’s not going to sue you. I think in a lot of these cases the companies’ lawyers are just having fun,” Brookman said.

Brookman said there is a lot buried in these agreements that could limit your rights if something goes wrong — including ones that seek to prevent users from posting negative reviews.

Take Intel, which says, “Violators will be prosecuted to the maximum extent possible.” Intel told Consumer Reports it’s to protect the company from inaccurate reviews, but hasn’t enforced it recently.

Many of these clauses may now be illegal due to legislation passed a few years ago, but some companies still include them.

“I think it’s a scare tactic. I think they know that consumers don’t necessarily know the law. But if you lie about them, if you defame them, then that’s not protected and companies have a right to sue you for it,” said Brookman.

Some go further, saying you can’t sue a business over a dispute — making you resolve your issues outside the courts with an arbitration clause.

AT&T uses language typical in many agreements “...you are …waiving the right to a trial by jury or to participate in a class action.”

AT&T declined to address why the company sought to eliminate the possibility of class-action lawsuits but argued arbitration is faster and less expensive for consumers.

Consumer Reports said that’s not fair.

“If your product breaks or something goes wrong, or if it hurts you, you should have a right to go to court and sue them for the damages that it caused,” Brookman said.

Unfortunately, there’s really no getting around accepting the terms if you want to use a product. But now that you know what could be in there, you might want to read the agreement next time and opt for products that don’t require mandatory arbitration in resolving disputes.