Reading All The Print

My life was simpler before I started reading the details nestled among the ubiquitous service contracts I am suddenly expected to sign, apparently without reading or forethought. Previous generations’ advice tells us people once entered contracts after negotiation and attorney consultation, or at least deliberation. Now, however, corporations and other groups have decided consumers don’t need to pay attention since we’re getting such a deal! Initial here and sign by the checkmark.

For example, when I explored Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) options available for high-speed Internet access, a provider wanted me to sign and fax back a contract, ASAP. He could immediately connect me, THE SAP, and give me the full benefit of that day’s special pricing. His pressing need smacked of an unmet quota and a touch of unbridled hucksterism. I read the contract from paragraph 1 to paragraph 14, and I encountered paragraph 13. After some empathetic text about the company’s certain costs associated with business, I would “agree that [I] will reimburse [them] for any and all direct costs, fees and charges that [they] may incur from other providers as a result of [my] installation….”

Although I recognize the business difficulty the DSL provider might have pacing customer demand with its existing equipment, this paragraph makes me responsible for any equipment or services the company needs to honor its end of the contract. A new router for several thousand dollars? That’s my responsibility, since I was one customer who put the provider over its current equipment capacity.

I pointed this out to the DSL salesman. Of course, he assured me, that’s not what they meant. However, contracts are not supposed to be open to interpretation. Between what the DSL provider meant and what the contract said, the court would rule against the fleeting meaning every time. When I pursued the matter, the DSL company decided it no longer sold residential DSL.

When my wife and I wanted to adopt a rescue dog, we had a hound visit our house, mainly to see if it wanted to eat our cats. The rescue volunteer provided a packet of information about dogs and a contract we would have to sign to take possession of the pooch. The contract included house inspections at will of the rescue group. It could also take the dog back at any time if it found our conditions “unsuitable, which includes but not limited to…” a non-exclusive litany. If we lost the dog; we’d pay the rescue group a thousand dollars, even if we “lost” the dog ten years hence when it died and we did not notify the rescue group in 1 (one) week.

Of course, that’s not what the contract meant. Contracts don’t mean, they say explicitly. I’d rather not subject myself to the next generation of dog rescuers and their intents, which might differ from the people who wrote the contract in the first place and what they meant in the contract. So our cats are safe today.

As contracts become more ubiquitous, we consumers are becoming conditioned to sign and accept them at face value. As a result, organizations use them more and stack them more against the unquestioning signer. I question the contracts, and argue with adamant, unthinking organizational organisms. These people never negotiate, and if I don’t like the contract, they challenge me to find a better deal. As a result, I’m happily on a month-to-month dial-up connection and without a dog or cell phone. However, I’m also not dependent on fickle intentions and interpretations of my service providers and their boilerplate, cut and paste contracts.

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