Are QR codes more useful in hiding information than displaying it?

A Senate bill raises frightening questions. Will retailers and manufacturers use QR codes to hide need-to-know consumer information, by being vague about what the code will deliver?

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Chase Pay in use on a smartphone

Credit: JP Morgan Chase

Although never mistaken for exciting and sexy technology, QR codes are functional and useful mechanisms. A tiny smudge-like box in the corner of a movie poster can deliver a five-minute preview or deep-link into a listing of local showtimes or even download the movie itself, for a hefty fee. Not bad for a souped-up barcode.

But a move in the U.S.  Senate last week raises a more ominous question: Will retailers and manufacturers use QR codes to hide need-to-know consumer information, by being vague about what the code will deliver? Also, critics ask, is it fair to disclose important consumer information only to those with a smartphone and app capable of interpreting QR codes? This presupposes that they even know to click.

This all started with an agreement announced Thursday (June 23) between two key U.S. senators involving federal rules about disclosing whether food has been bioengineered. According to a Senate-released summary of the agreement, the compromise agreement (between Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, and that committee's ranking Democrat, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow) sounds reasonable enough, at a glance.

The legislation "requires mandatory disclosure with several options, including text on package, a symbol, or a link to a website (QR code or similar technology); small food manufacturers will be allowed to use websites or telephone numbers to satisfy disclosure requirements; very small manufacturers and restaurants are exempted" and it adds that "the disclosure option (is) to be selected by the food manufacturer."

The method is to be chosen by the manufacturer? As Scooby-Doo would have said, "Ruh-oh."

By the way, nowhere in the summary nor the legislation's full text does it bother to define how "very small" a "very small manufacturer" must be. Also, if the point of the bill is to make sure American consumers can know if they are about to consume bioengineered food before they consume it — presumably so they can opt to not eat it — why exempt restaurants?

Back to the geeky part of this deal. It seems reasonable to offer a QR code option, as it's an efficient way to communicate this information. On the other hand, is it also a really good way to hide this information? Not really if it's labeled "this product is bioengineered. Click here for details." But the legislation has very different wording in mind.

Here's what the legislation says about phrasing: "the electronic or digital link disclosure, indicating that the electronic or digital link will provide access to an Internet website or other landing page by stating only ‘Scan here for more food information’, or equivalent language or any telephone number disclosure, indicating that the telephone number will provide access to additional information by stating only 'Call for more food information.’"

"Scan here for more food information"? That is 35 characters. "This is geo-engineered. Click for details" is only one character more and yet it actually tells the consumer what it is supposed to tell the consumer. "More food information" might be simply a list of nutrients or some other irrelevant details. If the point here is disclosure, then disclose.

I have a strong concern here that this is an insidious useage of QR codes to hide data rather than disclose. That was never its intent and will give QR codes a bad name.

Like anything that comes out of Washington, this gets even worse as one digs into the details. What is setting off some opponents is that this federal legislation overrules some state legislation (Vermont) that wanted more forthright bioengineering disclosures. Even though the U.S. Congress has the absolute right to do this, states' rights people still don't like it.

"We want clear labeling that says four words — 'Produced with genetic engineering' — on the package, nationwide," said Zen Honeycutt, executive director of Moms Across America. "We are appalled that Senators Stabenow and Roberts would come to any agreement that would destroy states' rights and establish federal, complicated and elitist GMO labeling via QR Codes. States' rights and democracy are the foundation of our country. Denying Vermont their right to have GMOs labeled denies democracy. Hiding our right to know what is in our food behind a code which requires the use of a smart phone is a social injustice."

In an email exchange after she issued the statement, Honeycutt went beyond reality in a hyperbole fest. "Anything less is destruction of democracy and a social injustice issue. Elderly, impoverished people and minors don't have smart phones."

Minors don’t have smartphones? Been to a mall recently? Not sure who one defines "elderly" or "impoverished," but there are plenty of QR-code-reading phones in the hands of older and poorer Americans.

The point I am guessing she meant to make is that not all consumers have such devices, and to federally mandate disclosure by a mechanism that isn't available to all consumers is inappropriate. That is indeed a legitimate point. (But, no, this obscure Senate bill won't destroy democracy. Heck, if the Electoral College's mere existence doesn't do it, I think we can conclude democracy is fairly safe.)

A deeper look into the proposed legislation suggests that even the authors understood its problems. "Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this subtitle, the Secretary shall conduct a study to identify potential technological challenges that may impact whether consumers would have access to the bioengineering disclosure through electronic or digital disclosure methods."

The legislation then listed specific areas the Secretary of Agriculture should investigate: "The availability of wireless Internet or cellular networks. The availability of landline telephones in stores. Challenges facing small retailers and rural retailers. The efforts that retailers and other entities have taken to address potential technology and infrastructure challenges. The costs and benefits of installing in retail stores electronic or digital link scanners or other evolving technology that provide bioengineering disclosure information."

Wait a second. The senators want this to happen "no later than a year after the date of enactment"? Here's a wacky idea. How about investigating these issues before this legislation takes effect?

Other than the weird reference to landline telephones — as though consumers couldn't use VoIP or even a store's manager's mobile phone to call a toll-free number for more information? — the point of those questions seems to be that consumers may not be able to see this information while still in the stores and, therefore, couldn't use the information to decide to not make that purchase.

This disclosure bill seems to be coming up with as many ways to avoid — or to hide — disclosure and is using poor innocent QR codes to do its obscuring dirty work. Come on, senators. Internet websites deserve to be treated better than that.

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