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Hello, I'm Calling From Schwab's Damage Control Department...: The company that keeps my 401(k) money so I don't have to pay tax on it chose to automatically put certain of their clients into their "We Charge You More" program, a system that applies a light private-sector tax to your money year after year so it doesn't suffer from tax shock when you cash out. It seems I am too poor for my money to be of interest, so I'm still being charged the regular amount. But that article (which Sumana sent me) is as great an example as I've seen of the opt-out mentality at work.

My experience is that every time you encounter an opt-out system in real life, it is because there is a weasel who won out over someone who wanted to do the right thing. In a given situation there might not be anyone who wants to do the right thing, but the decision to create an opt-out system can only be made by a weasel. I know some such people and I'm sorry to say this: you can be a great person in other respects and at other times, but when you choose an opt-out system your head briefly turns into that of a flesh-ripping weasel, just as it briefly turns into a big lollipop when you fall for the old Bugs-Bunny-in-drag trick.

Why? Because if the thing you're letting people opt out of was so great, people would opt in after you told them about it. It would be what we call a 'service' that you could 'offer'. Opt-out is a way of turning a 1-10% positive response rate into a 50-75% negative nonresponse rate. There will be maybe 5-10% of people who would like the service, yet who wouldn't have opted in. That's who you'll point to to justify your behavior, but all the time you'll be thinking about the 30-40% of people who won't use the thing and won't opt out. That, to me, is the mark of the weasel.

When cornered, the common North American Opt-Out River Weasel will employ its traditional defense: weasel words. It may try to dig its way out of a hole, but its webbed feet are not effective digging tools.

By Tuesday, however, Mathison had adopted a more conciliatory tone. He said Schwab is following up on the letters by calling every single recipient and explaining the contents in detail.

Good job! A hidden charge and a phone call to explain it! Now they'll really love you!

PS: if you must use opt-out, here are some less weasely ways to do it:

  1. Let people out of reversible things, ie. things that don't cost money or result in you giving other people information about them.
  2. Sound sort of apologetic when you bring up the fact that there's opt-out involved in something. People love this.
  3. If you have one of those web signup forms that has an opt-out box, say up front what the opt-out means instead of being so vague that it looks like you yourself have no idea what you want to do with the information you collect.
  4. Come up with an idea so brilliant, so useful, so pure, that everyone on the planet must have it, that screaming mobs rip off their clothes rather than go without it. Then market it and charge money for it. Ha! You're rich, and not a weasel! What? You say it's no fun that way? There, there.

PPS: A couple years back there were little online brouhahas about some web signup form with a checked-by-default "I love having my data shared!" checkbox. If you entered invalid data into the form and unchecked the checkbox and submitted the form, it would redisplay the form with errors highlighted and the checkbox would be magically checked again. If you wanted to opt out you'd have to be sure to uncheck it every time you submitted the form. This is not because the designers of the form are weasels; it's because HTML checkboxes don't work the way a lot of people think they do.


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