Saturday, December 9, 2017


Dear Newspaper Readers,
          Having not previously bought an on-line newspaper I didn’t realise that this is an area of technology that has taken us forward on the onehand and back to goodness knows where on the other.
          For years my subscriptions entitled me to get real copies of the Sunday Times and its daily sister paper The Times delivered to my house. I don’t recall having to abide by any Terms and Conditions before I place my order. In any event this would have futile because I could have gone out and bought them without agreeing to anything.
          Now in the name of progress The Times is about to go on-line. That is the only way to keep it alive by eliminating expensive printing, delivery and other costs. Hardly surprisingly they want me to sign up for the on-line version.
          That’s when I discovered that the Tiso Blackstar Group, the owners of The Times, has put a new twist on that old adage: “The customer is always right.” Readers are expected to abide by almost book length Terms and Conditions to ensure that they remain “always right.”
If they step out of line a section of Clause 14 has this ominous warning as to what will happen: “Any costs, including legal costs on attorney and own client scale plus VAT incurred by the owner (The Times) arising out of your use of this website content or breach of the terms and conditions will be borne by you.”
        Just to see what’s happening in other parts of the newspaper world I checked with the New York Times. And its digital subscriptions have much the same Terms and Conditions as The Times, which indicates that this is probably standard practice among all on-line papers.
The Times ones are under the heading: “Terms and conditions. The fine print for Times Live and the Sunday Times readers.”
          Even here like thousands of other firms Blackstar refers to them as being in “in the fine print.” Businesses have been doing it like this for ages because they are clearly embarrassed to have to tell you, the consumer, something that is clearly not in your interests. So they put them in the “fine print” as if they are hoping you won’t notice them until after the deal has been done.
          Here are some of the gems from the totally one sided T&Cs mine field that readers are expect to watch their step in for the privilege of paying for The Times on-line.
          “If you accept these T&Cs you acknowledge that the owner may at any time impose additional T&Cs. If you do not agree to these you will not be allowed to use this website and you must immediately delete all copies in your possession.”
          Presumably Blackstar’s Gestapo will be standing by to hack into your affairs to makes sure this is complied with. 
          And what’s more it’s “your responsibility to familiarise yourself with any amended T&Cs on each occasion that you make use of this website.” So once you log on you must do some exhaustive research to protect yourself before you even start reading the latest edition of the paper you are paying for.
          You are given a link to enable you to download the Electronic Communications Act and it emphasises that “it’s your responsibility to ensure the copy downloaded is the most recent version.”
          In the interests of that free speech newspapers are always promoting “you agree that the owner shall be entitled, in its sole discretion and for any reason, to prohibit you from participating in any discussion in any of the forums.”
          Then there are the sexy forbidden acts. “You are not allowed to perform any act that is not fair use within the scope of the permitted use, which has not been expressly approved by the owner in writing. The prohibited acts include (but are not limited to) modifying, distributing, commercialising, exploiting or altering the website or website content or incorporating any part of the website content in any work or publication.”
          So if you are not very careful you might perform a forbidden act that you haven’t even been told about.
          It seems that when this paper goes on-line nobody will be allowed to quote extracts of it on places like my blog, Twitter and Facebook etc without first getting “the owner’s prior written approval.”
          That sounds like a pretty long winded procedure. “Requests for approval must be submitted to the TimesLive editorial team.” Even then don’t think the answer will be an automatic “Yes” because the T&Cs tell us “The owner is entitled, in its sole discretion, to withhold or grant consent. The owner may also impose any conditions on any consent that is granted.”
          Will this mean that in some cases a Blackstar board meeting will have to be convened to consider some of the more serious requests and the firm’s legal team will have to sanction the final approval?
          Just in case a reader might get any ideas about circumventing the terms of this onerous agreement it says “no relaxation or indulgence that the owner may grant you will be deemed to be a waiver of any of the owner’s rights in these terms and conditions or in law.”
          So there you have it. Oh I almost forgot this pompous screed that is the very antithesis of good journalism applies to “any person who uses any part of the website.” And once you have read the T&Cs “your use of the website constitutes acceptance of the terms and conditions.”
          Now you need to consult a lawyer before you buy something that used to be as simple as handing your money over a counter or to a street vender. The latest technology might be a boon to the production of newspapers but it’s certainly treating the paying customers with the utmost suspicion as if they’re all crooks.
          Who wants to have to worry about Big Brother looking over your shoulder, with an army of expensive lawyers waiting to pounce every time you go on-line to read a paper?
          Jon, the Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman, who learns something every day about the way newspapers unashamedly do the kind of thing that they will enthusiastically attack others in print for doing.

P.S. Does this absurdity comply with South Africa’s Consumer Act? Just asking, or perhaps the Act hasn’t kept pace with this development. Should I have got permission in triplicate for quoting parts of these T&Cs in this post, or can I now expect the full might of Blackstar’s legal team to descend on me running up huge legal costs which will ensure that I never again have enough money to buy a newspaper on-line or anywhere else?

P.P.S. In June 2011 I wrote a post praising Capitec, South Africa’s youngest bank. What had it done? It had its T&C’s ceremoniously torn up in a TV advertisement. No wonder it has won all kinds of awards for being such a good bank and its share price is in the stratosphere, while most of the other banks have hardly got off the ground (trail blazers).

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