A Victory for Free Speech

In our November 2016 column, we highlighted the Consumer Review Fairness Act, then a bill in Congress that aimed at protecting consumers' voices within the marketplace. Since then, both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill came together to send the bill to President Obama, who signed it into law before he left office.

The Act puts an end to one of the more disgraceful practices we've seen in online commerce. The lowdown: Companies that sold products and/or services were trying to stop consumers from posting negative online reviews about what they'd bought by burying "gag orders" or "non-disparagement clauses" deep within the fine print of their purchase contracts or terms of service. Those clauses said that all consumers who bought the product or service "agreed" never to say anything negative about the experience and "agreed" to be subject to penalties if they did complain.

And companies tried to enforce the clauses, too. A couple in Utah, for example, was hit with a $3,500 penalty for posting a negative review. When they refused to pay, the debt was reported to the credit bureaus. And consumers in Texas were sued for a bad review of a pet-sitting service, which asked for a million dollars in damages.

Consumer Reports had long been pushing Congress to stop this underhanded attempt to prevent consumers from exercising their rights. Our policy experts in Washington worked with the lawmakers who wrote the bill and pressed politicians to promote it at every stage, helping generate bipartisan support in the House and Senate.

We believe there should be no room in the marketplace for bullies, and thankfully, this form of silencing is now against the law, can't be enforced against consumers, and is subject to action by the Federal Trade Commission and the state attorneys general.

This protection ensures that you have the ability to share your honest reviews of the companies you do business with, while also protecting the rights of organizations like Consumer Reports to publish firsthand accounts from our readers. We are proud to have played a part in making this law a reality.

Wanted: Justice for Bank Fraud Victims

In the wake of Wells Fargo's fake-account scandal, bank representatives promised to make things right. But that apparently doesn't include allowing legal redress for its millions of defrauded consumers. The mega-bank is evading lawsuits, thanks to boilerplate fine print tucked inside its customer contracts. Those clauses prohibit lawsuits, instead forcing patrons through a private arbitration process.

In response, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., have introduced the Justice for Victims of Fraud Act of 2016, aimed at preserving the legal rights of consumers like the Wells Fargo fraud victims. CR strongly endorses this bill and has opposed forced arbitration clauses for years.

"It's outrageous that Wells Fargo is still trying to give the brush-off to millions of customers it defrauded with bogus accounts by now forcing them into the black box of arbitration," says George Slover, our senior policy counsel. This legislation would ensure that Wells Fargo (and any other bad actor who attempts this kind of fraud) "has to answer to its defrauded customers in a real court of law," Slover explains.

To learn more about mandatory arbitration clauses, go to CR.org/hiddenclauses.

Raising Red Flags About a Media Merger

After its acquisition of DirecTV in 2015, AT&T became the largest pay-TV company in the world. That's on top of its 100 million-plus wireless phone customers. Now it wants to grow even bigger—by buying corporate giant Time Warner, the media powerhouse that's home to CNN, HBO, TNT, and the Hollywood studio Warner Bros., for $85 billion.

The companies' CEOs have promised that the merger would be a boon for consumers, but CR has serious concerns about how AT&T might seek to maximize the value of premium content like HBO. What if it restricted content from its competitors? What if the content got "zero-rated"—was data-free—only for AT&T cellular customers?

Fortunately, this latest mega-merger must win approval from regulators in Washington. To represent consumers' interests, we submitted testimony pointing out that market competition benefits consumers far more than monopolies do.

Editor's note: This article also appeared in the March 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.