Microsoft Gives Consumers a Choice: Take It or Leave It
Modified services agreement forces consumers to use binding arbitration
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
An old trick is to release unfavorable news on a Friday afternoon, hoping it gets lost over the weekend. Microsoft went that one better, emailing some of its customers Saturday, Sept. 1, to tell them about its new Microsoft Services Agreement, which goes into effect Oct. 19 and covers such things as Office.com, Windows Mail, MSN, Bing and so forth.
What's different about it?
"We have modified the agreement to make it easier to read and understand, including using a question and answer format that we believe makes the terms much clearer," Microsoft gushed in an email that was quickly copied by hackers who sent out identical versions with links to malicious pages that could infect their Windows computers with harmful software.
If you get one of the emails, don't click on any of the links.
Oh, and by the way, Microsoft added, "We have added a binding arbitration clause and class action waiver that affects how disputes with Microsoft will be resolved in the United States."
In plain English, the binding arbitration clause says that if you have a beef with Microsoft, you can't sue the company. Nor can you join or institute any class action suits against the company. All you can do is submit to binding arbitration, which pretty ensures you will spend a lot of time, travel to an inconvenient location at your expense, and get nothing out of it.
This is not totally unexpected, by the way. Microsoft announced its intentions in a blog posting just before the Memorial Day weekend and is now getting around to telling consumers about it.
But don't get us wrong. Just because it's called "binding arbitration" doesn't mean you're bound to accept it. After all, no one is forcing you to use Microsoft services.
As the Microsoft email cheerily puts it, "If you continue to use our services after October 19th, you agree to the terms of the new agreement or, of course you can cancel your service at any time."
Take it or leave it, in other words.
Microsoft seems pretty confident consumers won't actually vote with their feet, and probably with some justification. When we wrote about this in July, readers responded with comments suggesting that Microsoft customers abandon Microsoft customers and switch to Apple.
This isn't much of an option. Most consumers aren't in a position to dump their existing computer and pony up $1,100 or so for a new Apple machine. A much better option, which has never quite caught on in the U.S., is to switch to open-source Linux, the rock-solid system that powers the Internet and many industrial-grade systems.
Ubuntu is an excellent Linux operating system designed for consumers who are not technically minded. It is completely free, easy to install and includes a full suite of programs -- Firefox Web browser, Thunderbird email client, Open Office word processor, spreadsheet, etc.
Perhaps the trouble with Ubuntu and other outstanding Linux systems is that they sound too good to be true?
Bringing up the rear
Microsoft, of course, is not alone and, as usual, is not even out in front. Companies have been falling over themselves to unilaterally rewrite their contracts even since an infamous 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the AT&T v. Concepcion case handed corporations the right to simply remove, demolish, diminish and destroy consumers' rights simply by inserting a few sentences in their contracts.
Not everyone thinks this is a great idea. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D, Conn.) has called the clause "highly objectionable" and has said that Microsoft seems to be "following Sony’s tack and attempting to prevent preemptively any liability in case it experiences a security breach.”
“Microsoft is refusing to allow consumers to opt-out of the new clause in their terms of service,” Blumenthal added in a blog posting late last year. “This blatant corporate strong-arming indicates that Microsoft is trying to force its customers to waive their right to hold Microsoft accountable for any future injuries they sustain.”