Is “opt-out” always wrong? The Wall Street Journal doesn’t think so

Is pre-checking the box on an online transaction always unethical? I thought the answer to that question was obvious after the federal government weighed in on the issue, declaring it an “unfair and deceptive” practice, and the state of Minnesota fined two insurance companies for opt-out violations.

I wrote about both of these developments in a recent Washington Post column. A related poll on my site suggested a vast majority of readers thought opt-out should never be used, under any circumstances.

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So you can imagine my surprise when I heard from Steve Steinberg, a Wall Street Journal subscriber.

“Typically when you go on vacation, you put a hold on your newspaper,” he says. “When you come back you restart your papers — and you get a credit for those issues you missed and your subscription is extended.”

But not when you suspend your Journal subscription.

Someone found a new way to take a little extra money from the person taking that vacation.

Starting apparently this month, when you go online to put a hold on The Wall Street Journal, the little box at the bottom to “donate” your held papers box is now being checked as a default.

In the past it was an option but not defaulted. I imagine this ends up making extra money by avoid extending people’s subscriptions — without telling anyone the box is being defaulted to “donate” your papers.

This is just plain wrong and an example of how large corporations figure you will not notice a small change and take advantage of people. We have seen this before on travel websites where after you buy your tickets or reservation the “optional box” to buy extra services is “already checked for your convenience” but this is a new one: try to take advantage of people even before they leave the house for vacation.

As a former Dow Jones employee, I didn’t believe it. (News Corp. owns Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal.) I know from personal experience that the company takes ethics seriously. It has a code of conduct that all employees must sign, which asserts that its reputation for business integrity is “the heart and soul” of its enterprise.

Then Steinberg showed me screen shots (above) of the pre-checked box.

I thought I’d take a quick look at the Code of Federal Regulations to make sure I didn’t misread the government’s position on opt-out sales. Here’s the rule:

(c) When offering a ticket for purchase by a consumer, for passenger air transportation or for a tour (i.e., a combination of air transportation and ground or cruise accommodations) or tour component (e.g., a hotel stay) that must be purchased with air transportation, a direct air carrier, indirect air carrier, an agent of either, or a ticket agent, may not offer additional optional services in connection with air transportation, a tour, or tour component whereby the optional service is automatically added to the consumer’s purchase if the consumer takes no other action, i.e., if the consumer does not opt out.

The consumer must affirmatively “opt in” (i.e., agree) to such a service and the fee for it before that fee is added to the total price for the air transportation-related purchase. The Department considers the use of “opt-out” provisions to be an unfair and deceptive practice in violation of 49 U.S.C. 41712.

Well, nothing about newspapers in here, but there’s a precedent — and one that any company that takes ethics and integrity seriously would have to be aware of.

I asked Dow Jones about Steinberg’s problem. A representative responded,

[The box] is checked by default as we are trying to increase distribution of The Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition to high school students. We currently serve student readers in more than 6,000 classrooms across the country through the program. Our subscribers are welcome to uncheck it if they prefer.


Even if the pre-checking was done for a good cause — which a donation to the Journal’s classroom edition undoubtedly is — does the end justify the means?

I’ve held this story for almost two weeks, hoping for a follow-up from my former employer. Something to the effect of, “We’ve had a change of heart and we’re unchecking the box.” But no one contacted me.

I’m disappointed. Given News Corp.’s recent troubles, I assumed The Wall Street Journal would bend backward to avoid even the appearance of an unethical business practice.

Then again, maybe these pre-checked boxes aren’t always wrong, particularly when they’re supporting a charitable cause. Or are they?

40 thoughts on “Is “opt-out” always wrong? The Wall Street Journal doesn’t think so

  1. I try to avoid words like “always” because there are exceptions to nearly every rule. Anyway, I cannot think of an instance where opt-out prechecking might be ethical, so I am forced to vote that they are “always” unethical. 

    If you really want to get a consumer to stop and think about something, you should present them with a yes/no question with nothing checked, but is a required field. Then, they have to make a decision.

    1. Absolutely agree with you!  Make it impossible to move past the screen without making a decison, but make it the purchaser’s decision.  And for something like donating the newspaper copies be clear about what is happening, the good of the donations and the less good of the loss of subscription issues.  Clear, informed consent.

    2. YES!  Why is this so hard for corporations to grasp?  Oh wait…it’s not.  Pre-checking ensures more people don’t notice, and that makes them money. 

      Sorry…not buying Dow Jone’s BS excuse for ripping off their customers.  If someone doesn’t affirmatively choose to spend money, then taking it from them is stealing.  Period.

  2. I do not think that they are always unethical but a client should not automatically be opted-in to anything. It is very simple to construct the offer so that an answer must be given before a client moves on to the next screen.

  3. The cynic in me says that this has nothing to do with wanting to increase donation of papers and everything to do with a dying industry trying to squeeze every last penny out of subscribers. Anyway, like other commenters, I can’t think of a situation where pre-checking a box to buy something would be ethical. I don’t even like it when I install software and there’s a box pre-checked to add a toolbar to my browser, even though that doesn’t cost me anything if I don’t uncheck it.

    1. I don’t think it’s the “cynic” in you that says that.  I think it’s the unavoidable, undeniable truth that you see.  It’s not cynical to see and acknowledge the truth…it’s just wise. And Dow Jone’s “it’s for the kids” response is just a whitewash to hide the truth:  they are stealing from their customers.

  4. What about those automatic renewal services – that’s another one that’s completely unethical.  I have recently found that lawn services do that as the norm.  I contacted mine in writing and told them they should consider my contract with them over at the end of every season unless and until i contacted them in writing to renew.  I was told there was no way they could do that and I would have to contact them to cancel. 

    1.  Sounds like your lawn service is pretty good at clipping, eh?

      Credit cards and subscriptions that automatically renew. Infomercials that pitch books, music, movies, etc. then sign you up for a lifetime of regular deliveries.  The list goes on…

      To me, this is what caveat emptor is all about.  I don’t like to see those pre-checked boxes either, but it’s hard to call it unethical.  Sorry, Chris, my ethics meter barely twitched on this one.

    2. Betsy, but informing them in writing, you have effectively contacted them to cancel. i would remind them of this. Most contracts like lawn services have easy opt out policies like 30 days notice. As long as you give 30 days notice (or more) you are off the hook. I would simply send another letter with slightly different wording telling them that you are cancelling the contract as of the end of the season and that you will accept their proposal for the new season.

  5. As an Internet consultant who has worked on projects big and small for over 15 years now, I can assure you – even the most ethical company has a gray area.  They are frequently created by external marketing consultants and web site project managers who don’t necessarily share the level of ethics, but promise dazzling ROI.

    1. Totally agree with you, but sometimes it’s the higher ups creating the “gray” areas. I worked for a company where the CEO decided a free email newsletter just had to have a certain number of subscribers. When sign-ups didn’t hit that goal he had us start sending it unsolicited to the main customer database. You can guess what the unsubscribe rate looked like. Eventually he gave up on the newsletter and ordered that all the unsubscribes be reset so they could receive marketing offers again. And this was a large company that definitely should have known better.

      1. Yes, that too.  But I’ve sat in meetings where I’ve seen PM’s convince a client that pre-checked, poorly worded boxes were better.

        There’s such a panic – these companies spend huge amounts of money on online marketing they feel like they need to make their money back on it.

        1. There’s a panic in general in this economy. Don’t know the specifics on the Wall Street Journal, but layoffs, forced furloughs and outright pay cuts have been hammering the newspaper industry. My local newspaper has cut something like half its staff in the last couple years. I know people earning less than they did a few years ago but working three extra jobs they “inherited” from laid off co-workers. And they see no light at the end of the tunnel. Even when they hit their budget goals, they end up making cuts to help shore up other properties in the chain that don’t. And that atmosphere will make it far more tempting to pre-check boxes on online forms, knowing it’ll help the bottom line.

    1. I also try to read every detail of what I am signing up for online, however, I don’t think anyone ever deserves to be bilked.

  6. My first thought, when reading this, was, “Donate newspapers?”  Now that I know it’s for a good reason, can’t they say that?

    I can’t stand already filled “opt-out/in” boxes because it’s generally something that’s not beneficial to me and will usually result in my being separated from more money.

    And people wonder why corporations are seen as evil…

  7. “(News Corp. owns Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal.) I
    know from personal experience that the company takes ethics seriously.”

    Sorry, but the stain of News Corp overcomes any belief in ethics that you think Dow Jones still holds.

    And even if News Corp wasn’t involved, the fact that all of the major media outlets are owned by corporations who have agendas that all but punted ethics aside long ago.

    The only thing these companies care about now is the almighty dollar. And if that means finding ways of wringing pennies out of customers with opt-outs like this one by the WSJ, then they’ll find them.

    1. My local newspaper was taken over by a bigger one, then a bigger one and finally is part of the Wall Street Journal.  Still looks like the old paper whose editor I used to know, but they have taken “the automatic renewal at the current price” to a new high — 150 % of the original subscription price and that was after I notified them to cancel at the end of the term.  I fought the charge on my credit card and got a pro-rated refund minus the two weeks they dawdled to cancel.  Now I count my “free Clicks”.  I would gladly renew but not at extortion rates for very little news.  Their website had no results for the recent local election, but their postings to FaceBook did!  For free!!  Go figure.  WSJ is not who they used to be and neither is my local paper. And newspapers actually wonder why we get out news from the internet or the TV. I used to read at least two every day, now I get the email exerpts from four. No recycling, no expense, no ink to wash off, but also no support for the reporters or the advertisers.

      1. My local paper is doing these same things. They’re experimenting with limiting access and using a pay wall on their website, yet FB and Twitter will give you basically everything they have for free. They’re grading the news staff on how many tweets and FB posts they make per day but their online articles get posted unedited with misspellings and factual errors. Everything is form over substance. They’re running away as fast as they can from the print model, but they don’t make anything online. It’s nuts.

    2. Well there you go. Isn’t News Corp (subsidiary) the one that’s involved in that phone hacking scandal in the UK?

  8. The word “always” is very matter of fact and to say that something is “always” unethical would be very strong wording from me. I feel that there is definitely the unethical nature of the opt-out sales pitch to be unethical but there is the possibility that it is not. Either way, I am definitely not a fan of the opt-out sales pitch.

  9. Everyone on this board is quick to jump all over people who expect special treatment when they buy non-refundable fares (the usual “didn’t you read the non-refundable part?” responses) but somehow 540+ of you are upset that unclicking a checkbox that is right above the button you have to press anyways is a massive burden that somehow puts the WSJ web designer in the same league as Bernie Madoff?  Bit of a double standard, don’t you think?  The screenshot above is less than 350 pixels tall and 500 pixels wide – small enough to fit comfortably on a smartphone, much less a computer screen or iPad.  And if you forgot to unclick the box, you are talking about losing about 38 cents a day; $4.56 for a typical two-week vacation, or basically, the price of a single large Starbucks drink.  The law was designed for those companies who ignore opt-out emails and _actual_ unethical companies that hide those boxes two screens below the submit button.  WSJ didn’t do anything un-ethical here – if you didn’t uncheck the box, you chose to donate the issues.  That’s why my response to this survey on whether all of them are unethical is “no”.

    1. With respect

      You are mixing apples and oranges.  One has nothing to do with the other.

      The ease of unchecking a box is unrelated to the fact that its an unethical business practice.

      While I am not one of jumps over people when they buy a refundable ticket, the others have a good point.  You purchased something with your eyes wide open and full knowledge and want to change the contract after the fact.

      By contrast the purchase of an item with the opt-out was not down with full knowledge. Thus is a fundamentally different animal.

      Its no different than any other sleazeball tactic.

    2. What was the intent? I suppose they knew the probability that people did not expect to see an opt-out box was pretty high so they will either ignore it or not see it (the box). Perhaps, the true goal was not lose any revenue, and prevent the transaction cost of making a credit adjustment. If they really were charitable why couldn’t they give students a FREE online classroom edition regardless of any paper hold requests. This thing does not pass the smell test.

  10. Somehow donating a News Corp. product to potential future paying customers doesn’t seem so charitable to me.  

    How about if P&G sends out a Tide detergent coupon which says by default a) donate Tide to a Home Ed class in High School unless you check b) save $1 on your next purchase?    

    Nothing at all sacred about any News Corp. product being “charitable” deserving a donation.

    P.S. Next thing we know we will be donating by default Fox News (?) to a classroom. That would be more like unleashing a plague.

  11. Sure would be nice to know who is getting those newspapers – if I’m in a blue state I sur want my LOCAL HS students seeing REAL journalism and discussing how to earn a living in the real world.

    High school is becoming like college, a protected academic cloister where students are encouraged to pursue majors in college such as Celtic Medieval Literature and Geometric Mathematics – those are all well and good if you think you can make a difference in scholarship in that field but 99% of these majors end up on the street as Occupy protestors because some nimrod high school counselor told them to ‘pursue their dream.’  Ok – rant off – 

    But seriously – can I DEDICATE my papers to a particular organization?  No -then I would check no.  

  12. Is this for real – high school classroom edition? Whenever I take my kids for after school activities, the morning papers are still in bundles on the front door. No one bothers to read them. Kids don’t know what “paper” is unless it’s money or toilet paper.

  13. Funny how people allow the mere mention of the News Corporation to color their perspective on this issue – both as to the vote itself and the comments…

    1. For the same reason the husband/boyfriend is the prime suspect when the wife/girlfriend goes missing: He’s usually guilty!

  14. It’s really quite simple: Opt-OUT should NEVER be the option!!!

    Opt-IN is the ONLY option, that any consumer should ever have to be concerned about.

    Opt-out is an unethical means of selling the consumer a product or service, that they are not there to buy.  If I am buying an airline ticket, all I want is a bottom-price, WITHOUT any add-ons!!!  Same goes for hotel and/or car rental.  If I want to add on insurance, then I can do that, on my own; I don’t need the “system” to decide for me, what my preferences are.

    When I go to a web-site, I’m there for information, then to make or not make a purchase.  Opt-in is another example of being treated with condescension; i.e., I’m not smart enough to think and clearly know what I want and/or need.

    I think opt-in is especially unscrupulous, when it comes to the user who is not computer savvy.  This is very true for adults who are trying to understand how to use a PC and/or our more mature citizens.  The mumble-jumble of navigating a web-site can be quite daunting.

    For once, perhaps the Federal Government can do something right; make it illegal, to pre-check opt-in boxes!!!

    Also, this subject applies to ALL transactions, to include snail-mail correspondence, such as magazine subscriptions, etc.

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