Thursday, September 28, 2006

European consumer ombudsmen face-off with iTunes

In Europe, consumer ombudsmen watch out for consumer rights and actually take action on their behalfs against abusive corporate practices. In June, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish ombudsmen wrote to Apple regarding several of its iTunes policies, namely the fact that iTunes songs are exclusively compatible with the iPod and that the EULA allows "iTunes the right to change terms of purchase without notice, even after a sale." Turns out that the Norwegian ombudsman has now resolved that second issue with Apple so that, in Norway at least, the "terms of purchase cannot be changed for purchases that have already been made, only for future ones."

This is HUGE -- and hugely different from the EULAs regularly crammed down our necks in this country. If a person physically signs a contract with a corporation (or anybody) in the USA, the corporation can't cross out or add bits later without the person's express, written permission. Why is it that we allow technology companies to slip such clauses into their click-wrap EULAs and then go ahead and do it to us? Well, EULAs are long and boring, and few people actually read them. (I'm guilty of this, too. Not pointing any fingers here.) Plus, the majority of us blithely assume that a corporation's lawyers must vet their contracts and wouldn't allow questionably legal clauses in them because they don't want to get sued. This assumption is false and very harmful to us as consumers and citizens. Corporations will gladly allow questionably legal clauses in their contracts if they perceive little chance of anyone's suing them or if the amount for which they'd likely be sued pales in comparison to the amount of money they could make in the meantime. Apple is raking it in, so their usurous practices have been good for their bottom line and their shareholders, up till now.

The entire European market is smaller than the U.S. market, so maybe this change in their Norwegian contracts has such a small effect on Apple's revenues that they just don't care. But if we in the U.S. took up the torch and stood up for ourselves, we might actually stumble upon a victory worth celebrating. Class-action lawsuit, anyone? Should the DOJ step in? Or are we as a people saying that we just don't care if the things we purchase never actually belong to us? Are we comfortable with the fact that powerful companies can change the contracts they make with individuals at will without notifying them, but if individuals try the same shenanigans they could end up in jail? I'm not, but I don't use iTunes and I don't own an iPod, so I haven't been harmed by this directly. But Apple's not the only company that does this, and as such clauses become more prevalent, everyone in this country will be affected by them at some point.

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