Terms and conditions and Tide Pods

Listen to part 1 and part 2 of this conversation from February 3, 2018

The other day, I was reading a set of terms and conditions. I thought the text looked ridiculously small on screen, so I copied the PDF into a Word document. The word count was 4,027. The page count: 1.

As you might imagine, this was a contract written up by a very large company with a big team of lawyers. As a small-business owner, I don't have much of a choice -- I need to do business with these companies, so I need to read and review the terms. But it's a shining example of just how the deck is often stacked against the small company in America, even if it's not intentional.

But then there are companies that need to think far beyond the black and white of terms and conditions. On a quarterly call with stock analysts, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg said the other day: "We don't want to assess by ourselves which sources are trustworthy. I think that's not a situation that or a position that we're comfortable with ourselves."

It's rather like Zuckerberg has never met anyone outside his immediate psychographic profile. This "wisdom of crowds"/techno-utopian mindset has to go. Facebook as a company might not have special obligations to behave proactively to do good things -- but the people who work inside Facebook do. And it's clear that their technology has the potential to do a lot of social harm, so it's on them to try to steer the outcome in good ways.

I'm not from the camp that says business has to obsess over "corporate social responsibility", but I also bristle a little at the idea that there's a difference between "business ethics" and ethics generally. So while in theory I'm on board with Milton Friedman's axiom that a business has one responsibility, which is to make profits, I also think that we have individual responsibilities to do the right and ethical thing that are borne out when we act -- even in business.

And that brings us to at least one Hy-Vee store that won't sell Tide Pods to under-21s, specifically for fear that they'll try to perform the stupid stunt that has become a social-media fad. 

To which I ask: Isn't there some non-toxic, non-staining, extremely bitter flavor additive that could be added to the external gel of these laundry packs? Wouldn't that be the logical step for Tide and others to take? There were more than 10,000 incidents reported to poison-control centers last year involving children ages 5 and under. As a convenience, laundry packs have tremendous merit. But if there's a reasonable way the manufacturers could offset the hazard of ingestion (whether intentional or accidental), then it's worth asking what stands in the way. All of the buzz is about teenagers consuming them intentionally, but that's happened around 100 times this year -- whereas accidental ingestion by little people happens orders of magnitude more often.

As Mitt Romney was famously ripped for saying, "Corporations are [made up of] people". That means, to me at least, that while we carry a lot of personal rights into the work we do in the private sector, we also carry a lot of personal responsibility to do the right thing. I'd like to see a lot more ethics in business and elsewhere -- without qualifications or reservations. None of us should need 4,000 words of terms and conditions to tell us to do the right thing.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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