Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Geni Flap has Old Roots

I'm going to talk about a little different genealogy tonight -- the genealogy of a concept that is under fire currently with the controversy over the Geni website. To nutshell it, Geni has two tiers of membership: free and pro. The PTB (Powers That Be) at Geni decided to "improve" the website -- by taking away some of the functions available to the free members. Geni users are also upset that anyone can, as more than one blogger put it, "hijack" their family trees, merging with them information that may or may not be properly sourced. Geni changed this term of use without notifying the users. People feel like this was sprung on them, like they were blindsided.

I am not a Geni user. I never signed up for it, and was only peripherally aware of its existence. But I have read with interest the blogs on the subject, and have discussed it some with my husband, a computer professional of long standing who, before turning pro, tinkered with computers (he was a software nerd rather than a hardware nerd) for many years before that. The Tandy 1000s, Commodore 64s, and VIC-20s in our garage can attest to that!

I see a long train of abuses that has for years been perpetrated on the computer consumer, especially the consumers of software, for decades, since the first commercially available programs -- be they apps or games -- came out. It all began, as I see it, with the "shrink-wrap license." This was an agreement that said that by opening the shrink wrap on a piece of software, the user agreed to whatever terms and conditions the company chose to put on it. This usually includes not reverse-engineering the program or making copies. Some of us old-line users were not happy with the "no copies" provision, though many of us acknowledged that the intent was to prevent unauthorized (that is, unpaid-for) distribution of someone's intellectual property. As a professional writer, I can understand that. However, what most of us wanted to do was make one copy to actually use, keeping the original safe, so that it would not be damaged, as these early programs came out on media that could be compromised mechanically or electrically (magnets, lightning strikes to the house), and we wanted to be able to use the program without risk of damage.

The main objection to the "shrink-wrap license," however, was that the conditions that one was agreeing to were INSIDE the package, and you could not read them and tell whether you wanted to agree with them or not unless you tore off the shrink-wrap and opened the package!


So what is this agreement? It is a form of contract, but I do not think it is a good one. Now, mind, I am not a lawyer. As a government major at Florida State University in the 1960s, I did take three courses of Constitutional Law, one of which spent the entire semester on the contract clause (article 1, section 10). A contract, very simplistically, is an agreement reached between a willing seller and a willing buyer. Money may or may not change hands -- compensation is up to the parties to decide. But the idea is that the buyer and the seller both agree, not that the seller imposes conditions on the buyer, who may or may not be willing. It certainly also does not mean that the seller can hide the conditions of the contract behind a barrier, such as a shrink-wrapped package.

I was raised never to sign anything (agree to it, that is, whether actually signing my name to it or not) without reading it first. But how can you read something that is concealed in a package? What kind of agreement is it that is forced upon a person by the act of them tearing open a shrink-wrap?

By the same token, these days we have terms and conditions of use for websites, for example, in which the website owner or the company whose site it is tells us the terms of use, but states that they can change these terms at any time without notifying us of the changes. This is what is at stake in the Geni flap. Geni changed the conditions of use without notifying the customers who would be adversely affected. The implication is that we, the users or consumers, are burdened with having to go back from time to time and read the terms and conditions of each website we use to see if any of them have changed. Who has time for that? Who can keep track of all the terms and conditions of all the websites we use? Not me, for sure, and not most people. This, to me, constitutes an unreasonable burden.

These websites that we have memberships in all have our e-mail addresses. How hard is it to cobble together a notification and send it out to all those addresses? Most of these websites are all too keen to send us advertisements; is it really that much more difficult to send notifications of changes in the terms of use?

These companies have an obligation to inform the users of these changes, to provide for an informed consent to their contract. The customer, notified of the proposed changes, then has the information necessary for them to decide whether or not they wish to continue the contract. Any other arrangement fall far short of the intent of a contract -- to be an agreement between a willing seller and a willing, and properly informed, buyer.

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