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General Mills' controversial social media policy ignites legal debate

An update to the legal policies of General Mills opened the door for debate on social media
An update to the legal policies of General Mills opened the door for debate on social media

A controversial policy initiated by General Mills on Tuesday, April 15, has been removed by the company after outcries from both the social media and legal communities, but its week long existence opened up a debate on the nature of relationships formed via a "like" on Facebook or "follow" on Twitter.

The policy, according to experts who interpreted it, attempted to prohibit anyone who purchased services, used discounts, or participated in General Mills' online communities, such as "liking" them on Facebook, from suing the company for any reason. Additionally, by participating in the social media communities of the food manufacturer, according to Mills' policy on their website, one would essentially be agreeing to forego class-action lawsuits in lieu of one-on-one arbitration - if they did decide to sue the company.

While General Mills Director of External Communications, Kirstie Foster, denied the policy extended to social media followers in a written statement, the company did acknowledge that the confusing wording did spark an unintended backlash; which is why the policy was removed.

However, while the policy was removed and the existence of a "social media contract" denied, the "Pandora's Box" question of "does a Facebook "like" have any legal binding?" had been opened. A question that has previously been undiscussed among business in social media.

The answer to the question, according to experts in social media and law, is no one really knows yet:

"It's very important to understand, (social media law) is very unchartered. There is very little case law dealing with social media because so much of it is new," stated Attorney Douglas Miller in an interview about social media and the law. "There isn't a whole lot of authority to follow. You're trying to interpret what you do know already and apply that to a context that it has never been applied to. That's one of the risks associated with dealing with social media for businesses, there isn't really a whole lot that's cut and dry. There aren't a lot of black and white rules to follow."

However, one legal expert in an ABC interview did state that they believed a social media endorsement would not hold up as a contract in court, due to the fact that simply "liking" a page or following a brand on Twitter does not provide a mutual benefit to both parties:

"A contract has to involve benefits running both ways," said Scott Nelson, an attorney with Public Citizen. "To make a promise to arbitrate enforceable, it has to be part of a contract in which both parties are getting something."

Ultimately, though, the decision on the weight of a social media endorsement will be decided in court, someday. But for now, General Mills' policy, whether they intended it to do so or not, has opened the door for discussion.

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