New Media and Technology Law Blog

Liability under CDA Section 230? Recent Lawsuit Tries to Flip the Script against Social Media Service

Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, also known as the “Communications Decency Act of 1996” or “CDA” was signed into law in Feburary 1996.  The goal of the CDA was to control the exposure of minors to indecent material, but the law’s passage provoked legal challenges and pertinent sections of the Act were subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional limitations on free speech. Yet, one section of the CDA, §230, remained intact and has proven to encourage the growth of web-based, interactive services.

Over the last few years, website operators, search engines and other interactive services have enjoyed a relative stable period of CDA immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) from liability associated with user-generated content.  Despite a few outliers, Section 230 has been generally interpreted by most courts to protect website operators and other “interactive computer services” against claims arising out of third-party content.

However, a recent dispute involving a Snapchat feature known as “Discover” raises new questions under the CDA.  The feature showcases certain interactive “channels” from selected partners who curate content daily.  Last month, a parent of a 14-year old filed a putative class action against Snapchat claiming that her son was exposed to inappropriately racy content, particularly since, as plaintiff alleges, Snapchat does not tailor its feeds for adult and younger users.  (Doe v. Snapchat, Inc., No. 16-04955 (C.D. Cal. filed July 7, 2016)).  The complaint asserts that while Snapchat’s terms of service prohibit users under 13 from signing up for the service, it does not include any warnings about any possible “offensive” content on Snapchat for those under 18, beyond stating some “Community Guidelines” about what types of material users should not post in “Stories” or “Snaps.” Continue Reading

Second Circuit Blazes New Trail in Set-Top Box Cases: Cable Service and Boxes Are Not Separate Products

Since 2008, cable customers have been suing cable operators across the country claiming operators violate the antitrust laws by forcing customers to lease set-top boxes from the operator to access “premium” cable services.  Plaintiffs claim that the operators have “tied” one product (the service) to another product (the box) and that the arrangement is a per se violation of the antitrust laws (i.e., unlawful regardless of any alleged pro-competitive benefits).

The lawsuits have taken a number of different paths—with some surprising twists and turns:

  • The first jury trial resulted in a verdict against Cox in 2015.  But the trial court then set aside the verdict on the grounds it had rejected earlier on summary judgment.
  • When another operator agreed to settle claims in a Philadelphia case, the district court refused to approve the deal, finding that the settlement class was not “ascertainable.”  But last week, the Third Circuit quietly reversed in a summary decision, ruling that ascertainability is not relevant where the parties have agreed to the settlement class definition.
  • Meanwhile, the FCC has jumped (back) into the fray by proposing rules to force cable operators to “Unlock the Box” —or, perhaps, give the FCC the keys.

A number of courts have dismissed set-top box tying claims for failure to plead or prove that the cable operator has sufficient “market power” to coerce a customer into leasing the set-top box because cable operators face competition from “overbuilders” and/or satellite services.  Others dismissed because there was no proof that anyone would have sold stand-alone boxes “but for” the alleged tying.

Just before the Labor Day weekend, however, the Second Circuit established a new and different path.  In Kaufman v. Time Warner, No. 11-2512-cv (2d Cir. Sept. 2, 2016), a panel affirmed 2-1 the district court’s ruling that the plaintiffs failed to allege market power.  But that ruling was only a backstop.  The majority’s principal ground for affirming dismissal was that premium cable services and the interactive boxes used to access them are not separate products at all.  As such, the fundamental premise of any “tying” claim—two otherwise separate products tied together by the seller—simply does not exist. Continue Reading

Mobile App VPPA Suit Survives Spokeo Standing Challenge

In Yershov v. Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc., a user of the free USA Today app alleged that each time he viewed a video clip, the app transmitted his mobile Android ID, GPS coordinates and identification of the watched video to a third-party analytics company to create user profiles for the purposes of targeted advertising, in violation of the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). When we last wrote about this case in May, the First Circuit reversed the dismissal by the district court and allowed the case to proceed, taking a more generous view as to who is a “consumer” under the VPPA.

On remand, Gannett moved to dismiss the complaint again for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, contending that the complaint merely alleges a “bare procedural violation” of the VPPA, insufficient to establish Article III standing to bring suit under the standard enunciated in the Supreme Court’s Spokeo decision. In essence, Gannett contended that the complaint does not allege a concrete injury in fact, and that even if it did, the complaint depends on the “implausible” assumption that the third-party analytics company receiving the data maintains a “profile” on the plaintiff. Continue Reading

FCC Media Bureau Clarifies Broadcasters’ Negotiation Remedies

Negotiations between television channels/networks and pay TV operators are a breed apart.  The stakes are high and the consequence of failure – a “dark” screen – is all too public.

But the critical factor that sets these negotiations apart is the actual regulation of the negotiations under three main categories of rules.

  • Broadcasters may invoke “Must Carry” status or seek to negotiate terms for “retransmission” under FCC rules requiring “good faith” negotiations.
  • Program Carriage rules protect channels and networks from certain abuses by operators. Conversely, Program Access rules ensure operators have certain rights to license programming.
  • The FCC also has issued a series of orders in connection with mergers and other transactions, some of which allow an arbitrator to pick one offer or the other in “night” baseball-style arbitration when certain networks and operators cannot agree on terms of carriage.

On August 26, 2016, the FCC Media Bureau ruled that broadcasters are limited to the first bucket above, the Must Carry/Retransmission Consent rules. (In re Liberman Broadcasting, Inc. v. Comcast Corp., MB Docket No. 16-121 (Aug. 26, 2016).  This is significant because it comes in the midst of an ongoing debate over the Retransmission Consent rules and the FCC’s “totality of the circumstances” test.  Generally speaking, a party to a retransmission consent negotiation may seek to demonstrate, based on the “totality of the circumstances” of a particular retransmission consent negotiation, that the other party breached its duty to negotiate in good faith.  Under the Media Bureau’s ruling, broadcasters may look solely to the Retransmission Consent rules to regulate their carriage negotiations. Continue Reading

Of “Lunch Stands and Merry-Go-Rounds”: Ninth Circuit’s Rejection of FTC Authority Over “Throttling” Could Have Far Reaching Implications for Cable and Other Broadband Providers

On August 29th, a Ninth Circuit panel unanimously held that the FTC has no power to challenge “throttling” of unlimited data plan customers by mobile broadband providers as an “unfair or deceptive act.”  The panel found that a core source of FTC authority (Section 5 of the FTC Act) does not apply to any “common carriers” that are subject to regulation under the Communications Act of 1934.  (FTC v. AT&T Mobility LLC, No. 14-04785 (9th Cir. Aug. 29, 2016)).

Continue Reading

California Legislature Nearing Final Debate of Biometric and Geolocation Data Security Bill

UPDATE: Prior to the close of the legislative session, the amended AB 83 failed to make it out committee.

With the session ending on August 31st, the California legislature is debating a bill (AB 83) that would expand data security requirements for businesses that maintain personal information of California residents to include, among other things, protection for geolocation and biometric data. Under existing law (Cal. Civ. Code §1798.81.5(b)), a person or business that owns, licenses, or maintains a California resident’s “personal information,” must implement and maintain “reasonable security procedures and practices appropriate to the nature of the information.”   The current law also lists multiple types of covered “personal information.” Continue Reading

Switching Consumer Device to Ad-Supported Environment Is Not Deceptive under New York Law

If your company sells a smart device to a consumer, can it later turn the device into a paid advertising platform? Can it do so without advanced disclosure?  A recent court ruling suggests the answer is “yes,” at least in New York. Continue Reading

Cable Network May Proceed with Claims Against Distributor on Theories Beyond Written Contract

2015 and 2016 saw a wave of transactions among cable, satellite, and other linear programming distributors: AT&T & DirecTV, Altice and Suddenlink, etc. That transactional wave is beginning to spawn a litigation wave, principally over interpretation and application of the pre-existing licenses and contracts between networks and distributors. A recent ruling in one California case is noteworthy to the extent that it allowed a network to proceed against a distributor on multiple theories beyond the parties’ written contract.

Read the full post on our Minding Your Business Blog.

 

 

 

 

Browsewrap Agreement Held Unenforceable – Website Designers Take Note!

In Nghiem v Dick’s Sporting Goods, Inc., No. 16-00097 (C.D. Cal. July 5, 2016), the Central District of California held browsewrap terms to be unenforceable because the hyperlink to the terms was “sandwiched” between two links near the bottom of the third column of links in a website footer.  Website developers – and their lawyers – should take note of this case, part of an emerging trend of judicial scrutiny over how browsewrap terms are presented. Courts have, in many instances, refused to enforce browsewraps due to a finding of a lack of user notice and assent. In this case, the most recent example of a court’s specific analysis of website design, a court suggests that what has become a fairly standard approach to browsewrap presentment fails to achieve the intended purpose.    Continue Reading

CFAA Double Feature: Ninth Circuit Issues Two Important Decisions on the Scope of Liability Related to Data Scraping and Unauthorized Access to Employer Databases

  • Unauthorized Access: A former employee, whose access has been revoked, and who uses a current employee’s login credentials to gain network access to his former company’s network, violates the CFAA. [U.S. v. Nosal, 2016 WL 3608752 (9th Cir. July 5, 2016)]
  • Data Scraping: A commercial entity that accesses a public website after permission has been explicitly revoked can be civilly liable under the CFAA. However, a violation of the terms of use of a website, without more, cannot be the basis for liability under the CFAA, a ruling that runs contrary to language from one circuit level decision regarding potential CFAA liability for screen scraping activities (See e.g., EF Cultural Travel BV v. Zefer Corp., 318 F.3d 58 (1st Cir. 2003)). [Facebook, Inc. v. Power Ventures, Inc., No. 13-17102 (9th July 12, 2016)]

This past week, the Ninth Circuit released two important decisions that clarify the scope of liability under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), 18 U.S.C. § 1030.  The Act was originally designed to target hackers, but has lately been brought to bear in many contexts involving wrongful access of company networks by current and former employees and in cases involving the unauthorized scraping of data from publicly available websites. Continue Reading

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