How Companies Steal Your Rights

Digital Rights Management (DRM) and forced arbitration are two big problems that consumers face when dealing with digital media and online agreements. They were not created to give people a bad time, but they do pose threats to our basic rights.

DRM Control Violates Users’ Rights

DRM locks prevent people who purchase digital media from using that media in certain locations, sharing it with friends, or altering it for convenience. DRM locks also restrict the use of digital media that is borrowed from legitimate sources like libraries and streamed online from licensed services. This protects content owners from illegal sharing of copyrighted material online. But if that material were a printed book or a CD/DVD or any other non-digital product, the consumer would be allowed to read or listen to it at school, watch it at work or lend it to a friend. The only thing that would be illegal would be making copies, which is what the original purpose of the locks is.

The problem is that digital piracy has been so hard to control, and regulators have been under so much pressure from rights holders. The result is the scope of these locks that prevents owners of legitimate copies from exercising their rights of ownership. Copyright law is not supposed to interfere with people’s basic rights, but it has begun to go in this direction, concerned only with securing the interests of content owners. One of the greatest things about the digital revolution is that it makes media more flexible, but these locks are limiting access to and use of media even more than before the digital age.

DRM wrests control over property from the users and keeps it in the hands of its creators. We are not allowed to modify software on a mobile phone or add subtitles to a film. Since when did buying an appliance or a book mean that we could not put stickers on it or write notes in the margins? Since DRM. It is almost as if we no longer purchase devices or media but only lease them. It gets worse when we think of all the personal information that our smartphones, laptops, cars and medical devices have access to, and not being able to take action to protect ourselves from the impacts of these lockdowns.

Then we see all this locked down media available online anyway, because an intelligent hacker has found a way to break the seal. The result of this is that the law-abiding citizens who pay for their content and devices are suffering from not being able to use them comfortably while so many other never-do-wells get it for free and are clear from any legal backlash. Copyright law needs a serious overhaul to prevent content rights holders from stripping away the rights of their customers.

Forced Arbitration Robs Consumers of Their Power

Aside from agreeing not to modify software or use media in certain places, many online agreements have people sign off on their right to take complaints to court. Many online stores have these agreements, but the best example that we can think of is our Internet Service Providers. They are the ones we go to so that we can access the Internet in the first place, and they are the first ones who make us waive our rights so that we can get a connection. No one has ever had to promise to never take the electric company or water service or gas supplier to court before getting a connection. But ISPs are particularly good at making sure their customers can’t sue them.

Arbitration is another concept that may not have been intended to put consumers at a disadvantage, but nonetheless has been taken advantage of by companies. Arbitration is an option offered to complainants to resolve their disputes out of court, and it can be helpful when parties are willing to look at an amicable settlement rather than going straight to litigation. This frees up the courts’ time to deal with more difficult cases. But when companies insist that they will only provide a service if consumers agree to arbitration, it is unfair. Arbitration is supposed to be negotiated, not forced. Additionally, companies have more power than consumers in matters of complaints, and they sometimes need the power of the courts to help them settle disputes.

Many companies today have the attitude that if a consumer doesn’t like the terms then they can go somewhere else. The problem here is that comparable services, like Internet access, are not always available from alternative sources. These one-sided contracts that are non-negotiable are unreasonable, forcing consumers to give up their right to a fair hearing so that they can get a service that they have no choice but to use. Furthermore, arbiters are responsible to their clients, the companies that have written up the agreements. This means that they likely rule in favor of these companies, leaving consumers who have no negotiating power – which is most of them – unprotected. Plus, arbitration can be more costly for consumers since they cannot share the load as they do in class action suits, usually have to pay their lawyers upfront, and are likely to get very little back in damages.

Stepping out further, consumers have even less power to make complaints about larger issues than the service they are getting personally. For instance, when consumers have issues with companies over net neutrality principles, they are powerless to make these companies accountable for the violations. Companies can only get cockier about getting away with breaking the law when they know that they have nothing to fear from their customers.

In the case against forced arbitration, steps have already been taken. A bill called the Justice for Telecommunications Consumers Act of 2016 seeks to prevent companies from demanding forced arbitration. The bill was penned by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Al Franken, and has already gained support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and many consumer rights organizations. This bill will protect consumers from the one-sided service contracts of ISPs, mobile phone carriers, banks, cable TV providers, and many online services that we depend on daily. Another bill called the Restoring Statutory Rights and Interests of the States Act of 2016 seeks to bring back the right to sue companies who have broken the law regardless of any signed arbitration agreements. The Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are also working on proposals to protect consumers from these greedy companies who want to take away our rights after they have already taken our money.

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