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Fine Print, Bad Consequences

United Airlines aircraft descends toward airport (Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor). United Airlines aircraft descends toward airport (Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor).

The services provided aboard airplanes has long been equated with mediocrity; the food unsavory, the legroom inadequate, and more recently, the removal of passengers too hands-on. The public outcry over the forceful removal of a United passenger on Sunday, April 9th, has led much of the to speak out yet again the notorious airline, but with more fervor and passion than we typically hear. The overbooking policy at United has since been changed, but still questions have been raised by the aggression shown on Flight 3411. As a result, the public has come to a series of frightening realizations regarding the policies of leading airlines like United, companies which can with a massive role in the everyday life of the consumer.

The privileges that granted to large corporations through the consent of the average software user are practically unknown to the public, as the terms of use for online services are often skimmed, or not even read by those it most deeply affects. A study by researchers at New York University, including Law Professor Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, found that “only one or two of every 1,000 retail software shoppers access the license agreement and that most of those who do access it read no more than a small portion.”

For the most part, these contracts between corporation and consumer are dull, sometimes detailing in tens of pages the myriad of instances in which the provider of a service is not liable to the user. For this reason, as well as for the heightened value most assign to their own time over what is written in the terms and conditions, these legal novellas remain untouched.

Only one or two of every 1,000 retail software shoppers access the license agreement and most of those who do read no more than a small portion

What may be more illuminating to an airline’s intent to hide policies within these agreement through manipulation is the language in which they are composed. After a review by the plugin Literatin, which measures the readability of a text by comparing it to classics and popular works, it was found that 43% of the English-speaking population would not be able to understand the terms and conditions for Google.

It is the elevated wording that peaks my suspicions for the intentions of these corporations, but before a rapid descent into complete paranoia begins I must attempt to find some reason for the inaccessibility of the documents. It could be the importance of the material and the necessity for exactness in the wording of the document, but that seems too easy a response.

The documents themselves are indicators of the loss of control that the consumer has regarding what is being shared about them and what they can do to protect themselves from malicious companies. In the case of United, an unpopular policy was found through overt action being taken, yet most policies escape consumer awareness. What does it mean when we willingly give up our understanding of a service for the immediate gratification of being able to use it, and what does it mean when a corporation is willing to exploit this consumer apathy?

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Fine Print, Bad Consequences