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A deal's a deal: Ninth Circuit rules Web contracts can't change without notice

Ninth Circuit map Contracts on Web sites now can't change without at least a notice to users who agreed to earlier versions, says the progressive (and therefore oft-overruled) U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The decision only mandates obedience for firms in the two Pacific territories and the nine westernmost states, between Mexico and Canada. Strictly, other states are not yet compelled to obey. But with bellwether cyber-states California, Oregon, and Washington included, the decision will likely face Supreme Court or new Congressional consideration, as corporates seek reversion to the status quo ante of one-sided Internet contract revision.

A customer signed an agreement with AOL; AOL then sold its telephone services, then the new company changed terms without customer consent, or even notice, to hike prices, force arbitration, and bar class actions. The appellate court overturned a lower court decision against the customer, ruling since a contract is an agreement between two parties, one party can't change it unless the other party agrees.

"Even if (customer) had visited (company's) Web site to pay his bills, he would have had no reason to look at the contract posted there," the court said. "Parties to a contract have no obligation to check the terms on a periodic basis to learn whether they have been changed by the other side."

So, unless that appellate decision is overruled by the Supreme Court, or made moot by Congressional action, changing a contract requires at least explicit notice, not just a posting somewhere buried on a Web site.

Will your company shift to e-mail, to printed notices of contract change, or require a click-through for changes of contract terms? As a customer, how much did you resent now-you-see-it, now-you-don't 'agreements'?

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