The news: By now, we've all learned to be a little more cautious when it comes to "liking" Facebook pages. But did you know with a simple Facebook "like," you could be signing away several of your legal rights as well?
That's the case with General Mills, anyways. The food giant — which owns numerous brands including Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Trix, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Häagen-Dazs — updated its legal terms on Tuesday. While that would normally be snooze-worthy news, the new conditions are enough to make your jaw drop: Now every time you download a coupon, enter a General Mills sweepstakes or even "like" one of its brands on Facebook, you waive your right to sue the company.
If you do any of the above, you would be considered to have received "a benefit" from General Mills. Any later dispute then would not be settled in court, but through informal negotiations or arbitrations.
And what's worse is that the ambiguous language could mean that anyone who even purchases a General Mills product gives up their right to sue. "Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration," the company website reads.
Image Credit: General Mills
Lucky Charms — they're magically non-litigious! The announcement comes weeks after a California judge refused to dismiss three class action suits against General Mills. The company has been accused of misrepresenting its Nature Valley brand products as "100% natural," when in fact they contain genetically modified ingredients.
It also paid $8.5 million last year in a class action suit against its Yoplait YoPlus probiotic yogurt for exaggerating its digestive benefits. In December 2012, General Mills settled another suit by agreeing to take the word "strawberry" out of Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups — given how the treat doesn't actually contain any strawberries.
The timing is certainly suspect, though General Mills maintains it simply wants to avoid costly and time-consuming lawsuits in the future. "While it rarely happens, arbitration is an efficient way to resolve disputes — and many companies take a similar approach," the company said in a statement. "We even cover the cost of arbitration in most cases. So this is just a policy update, and we've tried to communicate it in a clear and visible way."
Nothing is a secret anymore. Although General Mills certainly doesn't look good in this story, Facebook doesn't come out smelling like roses either. The site has been criticized in the past for storing too much private information and selling it to advertisers, and it has deliberately made it difficult and time-consuming to delete this personal data.
Facebook has recently taken the right step by nixing "sponsored stories," which sent ads to your friends every time you "liked" a product. But it's still far from protective of its users' privacy. The fact is, anyone who uses the site's "like" function for General Mills now loses their right to sue — and that should make Facebook deeply worried.
But that doesn't let General Mills off the hook. It is true that the food conglomerate is far from the only company that forces its customers into arbitration; nearly 100 other countries do the same. But General Mills may be the only one that actually punishes its customers for "liking" its brands, and that's a strategy it really needs to rethink.