On creeping censorship, the chilling effect, and reading documents you sign

Ars Technica has an article about a “dentist’s office requring you sign over the copyright of any statements you make about them online”:http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/05/all-your-reviews-are-belong-to-us-medical-justice-vs-patient-free-speech.ars before you may receive treatment. There is apparently a company that is dedicated to making this a regular feature of all of our health-care encounters.

Ars’ dissection of why the contract cannot fulfill it’s stated purpose is spot on: the dentist’s office says the contract is supposed to prevent “competitors and disgruntled employees” from posting fraudulent reviews–but competitors certainly will not have signed the contract, so how could it govern them? Disgruntled employees might well have signed such a contract, but given the semi-anonymous nature of posting information to the web in this day and age, how could the office make the determination that a particular poster was a former employee in order to request that the statements be removed?

Whether as a basis for litigation–probably a poor one–or a basis for intimidation–perhaps an effective one, assuming people actually read the document–this is pernicious and vile.

The interesting question, of course, is how many people bother to actually read, much less understand the document. If the document simply said:

bq. I allow the doctor to censor anything I say about him online that he doesn’t like.

I bet that there would be a lot more people refusing to sign. But when you start to put things in “legalese”, and especially when the documents tend to be long, and the subject is abstruse, people tend to check out–even when the content of the document is important. I mean, when you signed your home mortgage, did you check that the interest rate was properly recorded, or did you just assume that the bank wouldn’t get it wrong?

The only other point I would make is that, truly, I think it’s better to walk away than sign, even if you have reasons to believe that the document is toothless.

At a most basic level, it’s an ethical thing. If you sign a document with no intention of conforming to the agreement it represents, you’re lying, plain and simple. Casual lies like that are, IMHO, corrosive to the soul.

At a more practical level, even if an agreement is ultimately toothless, that doesn’t mean you mightn’t find yourself having to spend money and time to defend yourself. I have witnessed this second-hand, as a lawsuit that was, for all intents and purposes, unwinnable, nonetheless drained time and money from a company (with whom Ironic Design has a business relationship) that they could have used more productively.

Strange Disclaimer

An interesting point about the thoughtlessness of some of our legal forms–the silliness of standard boilerplate suggesting that Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle wasn’t connected to actual events and persons…right after many pages detailing exactly how it was.

“Noted by Yglesias”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/01/strange-disclaimer/