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July 3, 2018, 11:49 a.m.
Business Models

Thanks to California, a news site (or other business) now has to let you cancel your subscription online

Power to the people (who hate talking on phones).

Here’s a script you’re surely familiar with if you’ve ever tried to cancel a subscription to, well, anything:

FADE IN:

INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY

On a couch sits CUSTOMER, alcoholic beverage in one hand, smartphone in the other pressed to her ear. CUSTOMER looks steely, resolute, and frustrated, all at once.

CUSTOMER

Hi. I’d like to cancel my subscription.

The screen splits and on the right, wearing a Bluetooth headset, is CUSTOMER SERVICE REP.

CUSTOMER SERVICE REP

Sorry to hear you’ve been charged again and want to cancel. Are you sure you want to cancel? How about we give you another free week? No? How about we give you another free two weeks? Still no?

The connection drops; CUSTOMER SERVICE REP ghosts. The split screen wipes right, and we dolly in to a tight shot of CUSTOMER, eyes glazed, slowly taking a big gulp of her drink.

A version of this exchange happened when I tried to cancel my ClassPass account. A similar version happened when I tried to cancel my Boston Globe a few years ago when it kept being delivered to the wrong address.

We all have our own subscription auto-renewal and cancellation grievances. (My colleague Laura collected a bunch of news organization-related ones on Twitter.)

But a California law that went into effect July 1 aims to stop companies from blockading customers looking to cancel their services — along with the practice of sneakily sliding them into another month’s subscription without much clarity on the real, full cost of the service. Among the changes: It bans companies from forcing you to, say, call a hard-to-find telephone number to cancel a subscription that you purchased online.

California’s Senate Bill No. 313, which adds further protections for consumers to an existing law, would (according to its official legislative summary):

…commencing on July 1, 2018, require a business that makes an automatic renewal offer or continuous service offer that includes a free gift or trial, to include in the offer a clear and conspicuous explanation of the price that will be charged after the trial ends or the manner in which the subscription or purchasing agreement pricing will change upon conclusion of the trial.

The bill would prohibit a business from charging a consumer’s credit or debit card, or the consumer’s account with a 3rd party, for an automatic renewal or continuous service that is made at a promotional or discounted price for a limited period of time without first obtaining the consumer’s consent to the agreement.

The bill would also specify that if the automatic service offer or continuous service offer includes a free gift or trial, the business is required to disclose how to cancel, and allow the consumer to cancel, the automatic renewal or continuous service before the consumer pays for the goods or services.

And while it’s just a California law, it also applies to any company (or publisher) with paying customers in the state — so, pretty much everybody, GDPR-style. (Credit/blame State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the bill’s sponsor, for the new rules.)

Ryan Nakashima, an AP technology writer who’s been conducting some adblocking and subscriptions research at the Bay Area News Group in California, mentioned to me that in an exit survey of people who were canceling their subscriptions, some cancelers had also called out the cancellation process itself. These are real complaints that the new bill will try to address.

The text of the bill also notes that “a consumer who accepts an automatic renewal or continuous service offer online shall be allowed to terminate the automatic renewal or continuous service exclusively online, which may include a termination email formatted and provided by the business that a consumer can send to the business without additional information.”

I reached out to some of the major subscription news organizations in California before July 1 to see what progress they’d made on getting compliant, what sorts of reasons for cancellation they’ve seen from readers, and whether they would have made any of these pricing-transparency and subscription-mechanism improvements had there been no law. I got a lot of basic, affirmative statements. (Many other companies I reached out to declined to comment, citing upcoming vacations.)

“Assuring customer satisfaction is always top of mind to McClatchy and its newspapers. We are aware and in compliance to new requirements for automatic renewal offers (‘auto-renewals’) per the California law,” read an emailed statement attributed to Dan Schaub, corporate director of audience development at McClatchy, passed along via a PR person. McClatchy owns California papers such as the Sacramento, Fresno, and Modesto Bees. “McClatchy adheres to all laws and regulations, and we have taken steps to allow our customers to access their account information easily on all of our websites.”

“We are indeed updating our system and customer service pages to conform with the regulations by ensuring that online subscribers can cancel online, as I imagine all publishers are,” Neil Chase, executive editor of the Bay Area News Group, wrote me in an email. The San Jose Mercury News, East Bay Times, and Marin Independent Journal are part of BANG, which falls under the infamous Digital First Media.

“Our subscriptions are currently managed through the centralized team at Tribune Interactive/tronc,” a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Times wrote in an email. “We are indeed making changes to our systems to accommodate this new law. Of course it impacts the L.A. Times/San Diego most, but it also impacts California-based subscribers to any publication.” (I tried to follow up for details with a Tribune Interactive/Tronc spokesperson, who punted right away with a reply: “We are not going to comment on a paper we don’t own.”)

While the new rules should make it easier for a customer to cancel a subscription, lots of publishers still have work to do to make it easier for people to subscribe in the first place.

POSTED     July 3, 2018, 11:49 a.m.
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