MWeb ADSL launch illustrates why Legal should talk to Business

MWeb launched its new uncapped ADSL products on Thursday to both fanfare and criticism. While many commentators on Twitter cheered MWeb on for its low prices that have made uncapped ADSL possible for families which were previously saddled with low bandwidth caps and otherwise prohibitively high ADSL costs, a number of commentators started to read MWeb’s ADSL Service Terms (“the terms”) and pointed out a number of inconsistencies between the message that MWeb’s marketing team were sending out into the marketplace and what the terms themselves said. As the terms read, they watered down MWeb’s claims of an uncapped and, depending on whether you chose a home or business option, uncapped ADSL solution. The terms were described as “Draconian” and generally regarded as painting a very different picture to the marketing-speak.

While MWeb quickly became aware that the terms don’t correspond with and support the business and marketing teams’ intention for the uncapped products and quickly took steps to correct the misconceptions that arose from a cursory analysis of the terms, this launch has become a case study of both how to engage with fans and critics on the social Web as well as the necessity for terms and conditions to correspond with and support both the business and marketing imperatives for the product in question. What impressed me as a social media lawyer is how MWeb’s management quickly came out and clarified its intentions for its products, addressed the concerns raised and instructed its legal team to amend the terms to bring them into line with the products’ intended specifications. I was consulted very briefly and superficially on how best to amend the terms so I won’t discuss the terms further but MWeb’s approach to the apparent inconsistencies is admirable.

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What I would like to highlight is the general importance of aligning terms and conditions with business objectives. It is trite that most people don’t actually read terms and conditions despite these documents being so important. I’ve written a number of articles that highlight why terms and conditions matter in very real terms on this site (feel free to take a gander through the archives for examples like FNB’s How Can We Help You terms, Twitter’s terms of use and why website terms and conditions matter). The simple fact is that when the proverbial poo hits the fan, the reference point is the applicable terms and conditions. These frequently understated documents are legal contracts that generally bind users to a legal framework they are far too often unaware of because they don’t take the time to read them.

The risk with the MWeb terms being inconsistent with the products’ specifications which its business and marketing teams communicated through the media and on services like Twitter is that if push comes to shove and a dispute arises while these terms remain in force, the terms themselves will be used to resolve the dispute, not the series of interviews and tweets published online. At worst, these contradictory messages may create a contractual quagmire for MWeb and harm MWeb’s reputation and undermine its efforts to sell what appears to be a great product range that will radically change how a substantial number of South Africans access the Internet. In other words, poorly drafted terms and conditions can damage or even scuttle even the best of intentions. Another thing to bear in mind is that even if your terms and conditions accurately reflect your intentions for your products or services, they must be drafted in plain language or they will fall foul of the new Consumer Protection Act. Complex legalese can be your enemy too.

The question you should perhaps ask yourself, as a service provider, is whether your terms and conditions support or undermine your business? Is your legal team on the same page as your business team or is all that legalese just getting in the way?

Image credit: Vanishing by licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial ShareAlike 2.0 license

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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