On August 11, 2022, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) and announced it was exploring a rulemaking process to “crack down on harmful commercial surveillance” and lax data security.  The agency defines commercial surveillance as “the collection, aggregation, analysis, retention, transfer, or monetization of consumer data and the direct derivatives of that information.”

The FTC View

The FTC has not released any proposed rules but seeks public comment on the harms stemming from commercial surveillance and whether new rules are needed to protect consumer data privacy. As part of the ANPR, and before setting out a host of questions for public comment, the FTC offers its take on the opaque ecosystem surrounding the collection of mobile data and personal information (which the FTC asserts is often done without consumers’ full understanding). The FTC discusses the subsequent sharing and sale of information to data aggregators and brokers that then sell data access or data analysis products to marketers, researchers, or other businesses interested in gaining insights from alternative data sources. The agency argues that based on news reporting, published research and its own enforcement actions, the benefits of the current consumer data marketplace may be outweighed by “harmful commercial surveillance and lax data security practices,” thus potentially requiring rules to protect consumers and to offer more regulatory clarity to companies beyond the FTC’s case-by-case enforcement. As FTC Chair Lina Khan said in her statement accompanying the ANPR: “[T]he growing digitization of our economy—coupled with business models that can incentivize endless hoovering up of sensitive user data and a vast expansion of how this data is used —means that potentially unlawful practices may be prevalent, with case-by-case enforcement failing to adequately deter lawbreaking or remedy the resulting harms.”

FTC Invitation for Comment

After describing the FTC view on the issues, the Commission invites public comment on whether it should implement new trade regulation rules or other regulatory alternatives concerning the ways companies (1) collect, aggregate, protect, use, analyze, and retain consumer data, as well as (2) transfer, share, sell, or otherwise monetize that data in ways that are unfair or deceptive.  Within the ANPR are a myriad of questions (too numerous to list here; a fact sheet is available here and the press release also offers a breakdown). Though, perhaps the multimillion-dollar questions asked by the agency are: Which kinds of data should be subject to a potential privacy rule?  To what extent, if at all, should a new regulation impose limitations on companies’ collection, use, and retention of consumer data?

Web 3.0 and the promise of the metaverse has generated excitement about new markets for businesses large and small. But as with any technological frontier, legal uncertainties cause new risks to emerge alongside the opportunities. One area currently full of legal questions is trademark law. We will examine what we

The concept of the “metaverse” has garnered much press coverage of late, addressing such topics as the new appetite for metaverse investment opportunities, a recent virtual land boom, or just the promise of it all, where “crypto, gaming and capitalism collide.”  The term “metaverse,” which comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash,” is generally used to refer to the development of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies, featuring a mashup of massive multiplayer gaming, virtual worlds, virtual workspaces, and remote education to create a decentralized wonderland and collaborative space. The grand concept is that the metaverse will be the next iteration of the mobile internet and a major part of both digital and real life.

Don’t feel like going out tonight in the real world? Why not stay “in” and catch a show or meet people/avatars/smart bots in the metaverse?

As currently conceived, the metaverse, “Web 3.0,” would feature a synchronous environment giving users a seamless experience across different realms, even if such discrete areas of the virtual world are operated by different developers. It would boast its own economy where users and their avatars interact socially and use digital assets based in both virtual and actual reality, a place where commerce would presumably be heavily based in decentralized finance, DeFi. No single company or platform would operate the metaverse, but rather, it would be administered by many entities in a decentralized manner (presumably on some open source metaverse OS) and work across multiple computing platforms. At the outset, the metaverse would look like a virtual world featuring enhanced experiences interfaced via VR headsets, mobile devices, gaming consoles and haptic gear that makes you “feel” virtual things. Later, the contours of the metaverse would be shaped by user preferences, monetary opportunities and incremental innovations by developers building on what came before.

In short, the vision is that multiple companies, developers and creators will come together to create one metaverse (as opposed to proprietary, closed platforms) and have it evolve into an embodied mobile internet, one that is open and interoperable and would include many facets of life (i.e., work, social interactions, entertainment) in one hybrid space.

In order for the metaverse to become a reality – that is, successfully link current gaming and communications platforms with other new technologies into a massive new online destination – many obstacles will have to be overcome, even beyond the hardware, software and integration issues. The legal issues stand out, front and center. Indeed, the concept of the metaverse presents a law school final exam’s worth of legal questions to sort out.  Meanwhile, we are still trying to resolve the myriad of legal issues presented by “Web 2.0,” the Internet we know it today. Adding the metaverse to the picture will certainly make things even more complicated.

In a closely-watched appeal, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, reversed an Eleventh Circuit decision and adopted a narrow interpretation of “exceeds unauthorized access” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), ruling that an individual “exceeds authorized access” when he or she accesses a computer with authorization but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computer – such as files, folders, or databases – that are off limits to him or her. (Van Buren v. United States, No. 19-783, 593 U.S. ___ (June 3, 2021)). The majority equated “exceed[ing] authorized access” with the act of “entering a part of a system to which a computer user lacks access privileges,” rejecting the Government’s contention that a person who is authorized to access information from a protected computer for certain purposes violates CFAA Section 1030(a)(2) by accessing the computer with an improper purpose or motive. Put simply, the court’s view suggests a “gates-up-or-down” approach where the CFAA prohibits accessing data one is not authorized to access.

Although the case involved a criminal conviction under the CFAA, Van Buren gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to resolve a long-standing circuit split and heavily-litigated issue that arose in both criminal and civil cases under the CFAA’s “unauthorized access” provision. This provision of the CFAA is routinely pled in cases against former employees that have accessed proprietary data in their final days of employment for an improper purpose (e.g., for use in their new job or competing venture). It is also a common claim in disputes involving unwanted web scraping. On the latter point, the Court’s narrow interpretation of the “exceeds authorized access” provision would appear to be right in line with the narrow interpretations of the CFAA enunciated by the Ninth Circuit in its blockbuster hiQ opinion, which held that that when a computer network generally permits public access to its data, a user’s accessing that publicly available data will not constitute access “without authorization” under the CFAA and in its Power Ventures precedent, which held that, in the context of unwanted data scraping, a violation of the terms of use of a website, without more, cannot be the basis for civil liability under the CFAA.

In a narrowly drawn, yet significant decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit and ruled that Google LLC’s (“Google”) copying of some of the Sun Java Application Programming Interface (API) declaring code was a fair use as a matter of law, ending Oracle America Inc.’s (“Oracle”) infringement claims over Google’s use of portions of the Java API code in the Android mobile platform. (Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., No. 18-956, 593 U.S. ___ (Apr. 5, 2021)).  In reversing the 2018 Federal Circuit decision that found Google’s use of the Java API packages was not fair use, the Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision (Justice Barrett did not take part in the case) found where Google reimplemented the Java user interface, taking only what was needed to allow outside developers to work in a new and transformative mobile smartphone program, Google’s copying of the Sun Java API was a fair use as a matter of law. This decade-long dispute had been previously dubbed “The World Series of IP cases” by the trial court judge, and like many classic series, this one culminated in a winner-take-all Game 7 at the highest court.

Oracle is one of the most notable Supreme Court decisions affecting the software and technology industry in recent memory since, perhaps, the Court’s 2010 Bilski patent opinion, its 2012 Jones decision on GPS tracking, privacy and the Fourth Amendment and its 2005 Grokster decision on copyright inducement in the peer-to-peer network context, and certainly the most notable decision implicating fair use since its well-cited 1994 Campbell decision that expounded on the nature of “transformative” use. It was no surprise that this case attracted a stack of amicus briefs from various technology companies, organizations, and academia. In the months following oral argument, it was difficult to discern how the Court would decide the case – would it be on procedural grounds based on the Federal Circuit’s standard of review of the jury verdict on fair use, on the issue of the copyrightability of the Java API packages, directly on the fair use issue, or some combination.  The majority decision is a huge victory for the idea that fair use in the software context is not only a legal defense but a beneficial method to foster innovation by developing something transformative in a new environment on top of the functional building blocks that came before. One has to think hard to recall an opinion involving software and technology that referenced and applied the big picture principles of copyright – “to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good,” as the Supreme Court once stated in a prior case – so indelibly into the fair use analysis.

The decision is also notable for the potential impact on copyright’s “transformative use test.” By considering Google’s intent for using the Java API code, the Court’s discussion of what constitutes a “transformative” use appears to diverge somewhat from recent Circuit Court holdings outside the software context.  The decision may redirect the transformative use analysis going forward, or future decisions may cabin the holding to the software context.