Fine Print, Disclosure, Fraud, and Exploitation in a Postmodern World

Abstract: The postmodern emphasis on information and transparency, rather than values, leads to a new form of exploitation and fraud through “information power” based on complicated laws, contracts, and fine print. Not only have government regulations failed to protect people from exploitative clauses in fine print, but unscrupulous governments use complicated laws they do not expect the average person to understand in order to collect more taxes.

Read the fine print

Have you noticed the increased number of documents, either online or in print, that have pages of fine print attached to them? If you install a computer software program, you must click a button that says you agree to the terms before it will install. If you sign up for a new telephone service, and many other types of service contracts, you are signing documents with fine print that contains fees for breach of contract. Or what about the ethics of advertising prescription drugs that have all kinds of qualifiers about harmful side effects?

How many people read the fine print? Is what is in the fine print ethical? The government mandates that manufacturers and service providers disclose fess and possible consequences to consumers on labels, in warning documents, in mailing out papers about privacy rights, and all kinds of other fine print that theoretically protect the consumer. In the post-modern information age transparency is important and this is considered a way for governments to force corporations to be transparent. It may be transparent, but is it ethical?

Should a society expect every person who signs such documents to be capable of understanding them? Or, is fine print a subtle form of fraud and exploitation in a world where legislators allow fraudulent behavior in fine print in exchange for campaign contributions. And, are not many laws themselves, like the recent health care reform bill of over 2,000 pages, “fine print.” How many citizens can claim to understand and take responsibility for such laws? How many legislators can exercise their own personal responsibility of filling out their own income tax forms governed by thousands of pages of “fine print.”

Click to agree to Terms and Conditions

We live in an impersonal world where facts and laws proliferate because they are not governed by common values. Individuals, corporations, and  governments use fine print both to protect themselves from lawsuits from unethical and to extract fees and assess penalties against those who are vulnerable.

I recently canceled a contract with a credit card processing company that I had used for over three years—the contract term, only to learn I was being assessed a breach of contract fee of $195 because the contract had automatically renewed. This was, of course, in the fine print. But the person who sold me the contract, of course, did not mention this in his sales pitch. I had a telephone service agreement that also was scheduled to automatically renew and it would have cost me thousands of dollars to break it, because it was a five-year contract for a T-1 line, but fortunately I read the fine print and terminated the contract in the 30-day window it provided me. Had another person replaced me at the company they would have had no idea such a fee was pending. Such “breach of contract” fees net companies huge profits even though the set-up fees were already covered by the original contract term. I believe such automatic renewals are unethical, for they provide a legal mechanism for exploitation. People even set up new businesses just to create profits from fine print.

Consider the $11 bankwire fee I get assessed when no human being is involved in processing it, the $5 I just paid to cash a Canadian check, or the $35 late payment fee you may get assessed for sending in a $10 credit card payment a day late. These are legal, but are they ethical? Consider the laws passed by Congress that “guaranteed” banks would not get stuck with bad loans. They were laws,  so they were “legal,” but they harmed responsible citizens and destroyed the economy, so were they ethical?

The modern idea of a government as a social contract to protect citizens should not just be to protect people from invasion by foreign countries. Government should also exist to protect citizens from exploiting one another legally through the use of fine print, disclosure, and unethical laws. However, in a value-neutral world this is what you get. It is not the “state of nature as a state of war” in the brutal physical sense that Thomas Hobbes described it. However, it is an information jungle that allows a large measure of anarchy and exploitation through transparency and fine print that overwhelms people. It is the less-educated and financially desperate that generally suffer the consequences of fine print, the very people a moral government should protect. In the end, in a value-neutral or value-free society the ones who succeed are those types of people Friedrich Nietzsche considered the “uber mensch” (those that have stables of lawyers to read the fine print). This is not the type of world that will lead to freedom, peace or prosperity. Reforms are necessary to make the “fine print” and the laws passed by governments conform to generally accepted human values.

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