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Can “liking” a brand online mean you can never sue them?

(Social Media) Forced arbitration is not a new concept, but could “liking” a brand on social media sites mean you’ve forfeited your rights to ever sue that brand? General Mills thinks so.

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general mills

When “liking” something negates responsibility

Typically, companies encourage their customers to engage with them through social media, the company web site, and other venues. However, in a recent privacy policy update by General Mills, this could actually have the opposite effect. General Mills added additional sections to the privacy policy stating that any consumer who interacts with the company online will be agreeing to give up the right to sue the company in the future.

The New York Times first uncovered that the “change in legal terms occurred shortly after a judge refused to dismiss a case brought against the company by consumers in California, made General Mills one of the first, if not the first, major food companies to seek to impose what legal experts call “forced arbitration” on consumers.”

While General Mills is not the first company to engage in forced arbitration (Dropbox, PayPal, and Instagram have forced arbitration clauses), they are the first to connect it with such broad terms outside of their products, specifically regarding social media.

Since then, the company has backtracked. “Those terms -– and our intentions -– were widely misread, causing concern among consumers,” said Kirstie Foster, General Mills’ director of external communications. “So we’ve listened –- and we’re changing them back to what they were before.”

Still, what does this mean for you?

It means two things: first, if this continues to be a trend in businesses, since companies such as AT&T have been able to impose “forced arbitration,” this is something your own company may be faced with; and secondly, if you frequently deal with a company, make absolutely certain you are familiar with their privacy policy, because it could contain a similar clause.

You may be asking why would they do this, especially give the fact that General Mills deals in the food industry and contaminated or poorly processed foods could actually kill someone, leaving the affected party without any form of legal recourse outside of “forced arbitration.” The short answer is: why wouldn’t they?

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Julia Duncan, director of federal programs and arbitration expert at the American Association of Justice states, “although this is the first case I’ve seen of a food company moving in this direction, others will follow — why wouldn’t you? It’s essentially trying to protect the company from all accountability, even when it lies, or say, an employee deliberately adds broken glass to a product.”

Getting a perk, giving up all legal rights

This is important because a growing number of people use social media sites and company websites to find things like current promotions, contests, and coupons. And by visiting the site the get a “perk,” you could be giving up your legal rights. There are other agreements out there similar to this one, but the General Mills agreement is very broad. The site states:

These terms are a binding legal agreement (“Agreement”) between you and General Mills. In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms.

So, unless you think General Mills will always have your very best interests at heart, you may feel a bit of reluctance in interacting with them at all. And, this could very well pave the way for other companies to follow suit and for consumers to feel dubious about your own brand’s policies. Backtrack or not, watch for other brands to decide this is a good idea and slip through the press’ hands.

Jennifer Walpole is a Senior Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds a Master's degree in English from the University of Oklahoma. She is a science fiction fanatic and enjoys writing way more than she should. She dreams of being a screenwriter and seeing her work on the big screen in Hollywood one day.


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