Slack is now forcing users into arbitration and that is terrible

published by Eric Mill on

Slack, a young and wildly successful team chat and collaboration service, updated its TOS and Privacy Policy today. They have a friendly explainer that describes a very unfriendly new policy: mandatory dispute resolution through arbitration. You give up your right to sue, or to join a class action lawsuit, and instead agree that any disputes will be resolved through arbitration.

You can read the full Terms, and Slack's explanation of the arbitration clause:

We hope we don’t have any arbitration or any lawsuits, ever. However, a Terms of Service is a legal document, and legal documents are written with lawsuits in mind. As we considered this option, it mainly came down to two things: speed and cost. Litigation is costly and time consuming. After examining arbitration as an option, we decided that it offers a better, more cost-effective, and faster means of adjudicating disputes.

Slack has a disarming communication style, and I think they likely internally believe they're reaching a reasonable conclusion here. But they're wrong, and we should never accept these clauses.

Mandatory arbitration clauses are terrible

After a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2011 that affirmed these clauses, many companies have added them, creating a disastrous new norm for the balance of power between individuals and powerful institutions on the internet.

eBay and PayPal added these clauses back in October 2012, primarily to avoid class action lawsuits. People correctly saw this as an abrogation of their rights and a dire warning, but they have not stopped; Dropbox just added one in 2014.

Many companies which have added these clauses include an opt-out process. Slack does not appear to have done this.

Consumerist has a great explanation of why forced arbitration does not work in your favor:

  1. Forced arbitration takes away your right to file a complaint in a court of law against a company that’s wronged you.
  2. Companies want you to arbitrate because the system has been shown to be heavily unbalanced in favor of businesses — who have the legal knowledge, experience, and funding to put up a proper defense — while harmed consumers often enter into the complicated process without legal representation.
  3. Most arbitration clauses also take away the right of groups of harmed consumers to pool their similar complaints together, forcing each customer into going through a binding arbitration that puts limits on damages; meaning companies can harm large groups of customers but get away with only paying out to those people who are willing to arbitrate.

Update: Read MuckRock's explanation of why they removed their arbitration clause after this post (and weren't even specifically aware they had one). These clauses aren't inevitable - they're just boilerplate, and they can be removed.

Slack was supposed to be better than this

I've been one of Slack's biggest fans. I started using it at the very beginning of 2014 — you know, before it was (very) cool — and introduced it to my friends and my then-workplace.

Slack has succeeded for lots of reasons, but the reason it got the immediate love and attention of people like me is because Slack feels like the best of the internet. Besides the emojis and IRC glyphs, Slack exudes the feeling of a playground built by kids that know all the cool things the internet can do. (And they do — they built Flickr and Glitch). When people would ask me "What makes this better than Hipchat?", the answer usually boils down to "Just give it a try and you'll feel the difference."

Slack has gone through absolutely meteoric growth over the last year, in part because of excited internet-ians like myself who pushed their offices and friends to give it a shot. Arbitration clauses like this are the opposite of what we should expect, and beneath the standard we should hold them to.

A letter to Slack

I just sent them a support ticket with my feelings on the matter, which I've copied below. Consider it an open letter to Slack:

I'm deeply disappointed in Slack's decision to add an arbitration clause to their Terms of Service.

Slack's justification, that arbitration "offers a better, more cost-effective, and faster means of adjudicating disputes," is, of course, true. For Slack.

The legal system is costly, because fairness is costly to ensure. Slack is prioritizing its business efficiency and risk mitigation over the interests of its users.

Slack could have chosen to be a leader in demonstrating that a successful internet company doesn't have to demand that its users give up valuable rights of legal action. Instead, it's just another participant in the growing erosion of users' rights on today's internet. I find this antithetical to Slack's values, company culture, and image.

I won't be deactivating my account over this. But it very much increases the likelihood that other concerns might push me to leave in the future. It's a factor, and one I hope Slack's competition recognizes and applies pressure to Slack over.

Slack is one of my favorite services on the internet, and I've generally been a vocal supporter of the company's work. Slack clearly prides itself on being humane and a representative of the very best of the Internet. Mandatory arbitration clauses are the opposite of this. I urge Slack to revisit this clause.

Response from Slack

Update: A member of Slack's customer service team responded to my help ticket. I asked if they minded if I posted it here, and they were fine with that. Links are theirs.

Hi Eric,

Thank you for writing in, for writing the post on your blog and for caring about issues that matter – like user rights.

We appreciate you sharing the post with us and writing in public about your view. We're always gathering feedback and always seeking to improve our service. Feedback like you've provided is valuable in that continual improvement.

In running Slack, we're always trying to make decisions that make the best sense to all the people involved. The decision to add an arbitration clause if our Terms of Service is one of those decisions that tries to strike the right balance for all the people involved with Slack. Only time will tell if it's the right decision.

Again, we appreciate you sharing your feedback and caring about the issue. Your blog post has been shared internally (on Slack, naturally) and is getting the attention of many folks on our team, who also care about issues like user rights.

Please let me know I can help with anything else and I'll be happy to help out.

Also Update: Slack's CEO, Stewart Butterfield, was kind enough to respond on Twitter with some rationale. I recommend reading the whole thread, but here are the first few: