SANTA CRUZ -- The "terms and conditions" user agreement on PayPal is longer than Shakespeare's "Hamlet." The same agreement on iTunes is longer than "Macbeth."
Those giant text-heavy agreements that are dispatched by checking a tiny box are only the latest chapter in a long-established tradition in the relationship between consumers and corporations on contracts laden with fine print. Companies have found the more they pack those agreements with legalese, the more likely consumers are to agree to them without actually reading them.
Investigative journalist David Cay Johnston is one of the few reporters reading the fine print, and what he found is the basis of his latest book, "Fine Print: How Companies Use 'Plain English' to Rob You Blind."
A Santa Cruz native, Johnston is a longtime reporter, having worked for The New York Times and Reuters. He is now the president of Investigative Reporters and Editors.
The new book is part of a trilogy on various abuses of the American economy. "Perfectly Legal" zeroed in on taxes and how the tax system is gamed for private advantage. "Free Lunch" examined the waste and fraud that go with government subsidies.
"This one is about how companies have been quietly repealing the laws of competition, establishing rules that take away consumer rights and building moats, regulatory mechanisms so that nobody can compete against them," said Johnston, who will appear Wednesday at the Capitola Book
The evidence of these abuses, he said, are often to be found in the fine print on phone, electricity or cable bills -- and that government oversight agencies aren't doing their jobs in regulating those hidden fees.
To cite one example, Johnston points to that ubiquitous feature of the contemporary landscape, the power pole. Your electricity bill, he said, contains a small fee to allow the power company to replace the poles on a 50-year cycle.
"That comes out to 46,000 poles a year," said Johnston. "Well, I went and got the records on pole replacement. In some years, they replaced fewer than 3,000 poles. Which means, some of the poles now in use would, at that rate, have to last until the year 2778, which is not going to happen."
At the same time, he said, regulatory agencies on local, state and federal levels have seen budget cuts and key appointments given to people from the industries they are designed to regulate, such as the state's Public Utilities Commission.
Johnston borrowed a quote from a Manteca newspaper editor, saying "PUC doesn't stand for Public Utilities Commission anymore. It stands for Profit Upkeep Commission.
Johnston's reporting career, in fact, began in Santa Cruz County. He grew up in the 1960s in Santa Cruz and attended Soquel High School, before landing a job at the Valley Press as a teenager. Johnston was later hired at the San Jose Mercury News at 19.
He said his chosen industry is part of the problem. News organizations used to regularly feature strong consumer reporting, but budget cutting and intimidation from private industry, said Johnston, has made it so regulatory abuses are getting almost no coverage.
"This book is not about outliers," said Johnston. "It is about what is fundamentally happening. I'm a big fan of competitive markets. Competition, Adam Smith taught us, is what brings about efficiency, productivity and economic growth. And these big companies -- not just utilities, but railroads, telecommunications, retailers, all sorts of industry -- have been getting laws passed that help them escape the rigors of the competitive market. And nobody's watching."
Follow Sentinel reporter Wallace Baine on Twitter at Twitter.com/wallacebaine
IF YOU GO
WHO: David Cay Johnston, author of 'Fine Print: How Companies Use 'Plain English' to Rob You Blind.'
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola