Last July, a New Haven car rental company made headlines because it used a monitoring service in its cars to charge renters $150 every time they exceeded 79 mph for more than two minutes. A man who was charged $150 twice complained, and the state, rather than point to the contract he signed to use the rental car that apparently mentioned this proviso, defended his right to speed.
Okay, so perhaps the company didn't disclose enough, but some reports made it clear that the fee for speeding was displayed in large type and required initialing. The State of Connecticut just found the firm violated the Unfair Trade Practices Act, and told them to stop and refund fees. (Oddly, the stories last July indicated the same thing, but the state must have needed to go through a formal process that just ended.)
Because there were competitors in the market, I thought it was perfectly legitimate for the company to state its terms, ask people to behave reasonably, and monitor their behavior. They were a private company, for chrissakes, not the government. And you consented to the monitoring and the fines (at least in some versions).
Around the time the news story broke on this, cartoonist Tom Tomorrow produced one of his This Modern World panels on the subjects. I wrote Tom (actually Dan Perkins) about the issue and how it was hardly in the same league as government monitoring because it was voluntary and there were other options. He wrote back that he was stunned that anyone would defend the company, but he saw where I was coming from even though he disagreed. We both agreed that New Haven is full of people trying to rip you off, as I can testify from five years of living there (Dan lived there at one point, too).
Of course, the hilarious side story to Acme Rent-a-Car (their real name) was that it turned out that many national and regional rental car agencies are monitoring cars all the time through a variety of services. So far, these companies have used this for good: locked your rental car keys in the car? Great, they can send a signal and remotely unlock it. Car stolen? They can find it. Shouldn't that bother people, too? No, it's not the government. Then tell me again what's wrong with Acme's policy. (Oh, yeah, they tried to justify it on the basis of expense: wear and tear. So why can hotels charge $150 if you smoke in a non-smoking room even if it costs them $5 to clean it? Not that I want smokers to have that right.)