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Can Being Facebook Friends Cancel Your Right to Sue?

General Mills says it treats customers' information sensitively. But what about their rights?

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When it comes to privacy, a business can't be too careful.

That's apparently the stance over at General Mills, the parent company to a long list of household brands, including Pillsbury, Cheerios, Betty Crocker, Yoplait, Bisquick and Gold Label.

General Mills this month made changes to its Privacy Policy and its Legal Terms, which now take away a consumer's right to sue the company if he or she has Liked the company on Facebook (aka "joined" its online communities), downloaded coupons, entered a sweepstakes or contest hosted by the company, or interacted with it in a variety of other ways, The New York Times reported April 16.

Put another way: If a peanut winds up where it shouldn't be—to dangerous results—but you're Facebook Friends with GM, you've given up your right to sue.

The report is fascinating on several fronts. First, for the stunning audacity of a company that makes food (a product with so much potential for harm) to skirt the use of a judge and jury in favor of an arbitrator—and to do so in a way that's surely unclear to most people. (Like me!)

I also hadn't realized quite how many businesses, from wireless carriers to major banks, home builders and nursing homes, had also taken the arbitrator approach. The Times linked to the site of Public Citizen, a public advocacy group that, among its causes, works to "blow the whistle" on companies "that are taking away your rights with this predatory practice."

The site includes links to the "forced arbitration provisions" in contracts from companies including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, Comcast, DirectTV, Chase, Discover and American Express.

Finally, reading General Mills' new Legal Terms, I was amazed—or maybe just amazingly depressed—to realize how much this cereal company is interested in knowing about me and you. The new terms are worth reading.

General Mills discloses that it collects, among other things, information such as: the type of devices we're using, the operating system we're on, the browser we're using, whatever it can glean about us from social networks, and what it learns from "other sources where permitted by law."

It also receives information from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks about our contacts.

If you visit a General Mills Website or click on an ad on its site, expect that it's taking note of the "Websites or online services you visit before or after our Site."

The company may also turn to public aggregators to learn your social networking IDs, demographic information, postal address and income level.

Then, it might share all the information it's collected "among our various businesses, and within our family and affiliated companies," as well as with service providers and "third parties." Surely, that's all safe.

General Mills adds, "We know that maintaining your trust requires that we protect your privacy—so we are very sensitive to the privacy concerns of those who use our websites, our pages and applications on third-party social-networking services, our emails and our mobile applications. …"

The government is spying on all of us, I get that. But when even the company that makes breakfast wants to know about my income and operating system preference—and if they want to know it, that means all the companies we interact with do—it feels like technology has devolved society.

It makes me want my own new Terms and Policies.

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.