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.

UPDATE: On December 23, 2021, the parties reached a settlement, as Southwest filed an unopposed motion for entry of final judgment and a permanent injunction containing the same restrictions as the temporary injunction issued in September. Under the proposed permanent injunction, Kiwi would be barred from scraping flight and fare information from Southwest’s site, publishing any Southwest flight or fare information on kiwi’s site or app (or selling any Southwest flights), or otherwise using Southwest’s site for any commercial purpose or in a manner that violates Southwest’s site terms.

UPDATE: On November 1, 2021, the parties filed a Joint Notice of Settlement indicating that they have reached a settlement agreement in principle.  The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

UPDATE: On October 28, 2021, the defendant Kiwi.com, Inc. filed a notice of appeal to the Fifth Circuit seeking review of the district court’s ruling granting Southwest Airlines Co.’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

On September 30, 2021, a Texas district court granted Southwest Airline Co.’s (“Southwest”) request for a preliminary injunction against online travel site Kiwi.com, Inc. (“Kiwi”), barring Kiwi from, among other things, scraping fare data from Southwest’s website and committing other acts that violate Southwest’s terms. (Southwest Airlines Co. v. Kiwi.com, Inc., No. 21-00098 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 30, 2021)). Southwest is no stranger in seeking and, in most cases, obtaining injunctive relief against businesses that have harvested its fare data without authorization – ranging as far back as the 2000s (See e.g., Southwest Airlines Co. v. BoardFirstLLC, No. 06-0891 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 12, 2007) (a case cited in the current court opinion)), and as recently as two years ago, when we wrote about a 2019 settlement Southwest entered into with an online entity that scraped Southwest’s site and had offered a fare notification service, all contrary to Southwest’s terms.

In this case, the Texas court found that Southwest had established a likelihood of success on the merits of its breach of contract claim. Rejecting Kiwi’s arguments that it did not assent to Southwest’s terms, the court found that Kiwi had knowledge of and assented to the terms in multiple ways, including by agreeing to the terms when purchasing tickets on Southwest’s site. In all, the court found the existence of a valid contract and Kiwi’s likely breach of the terms, which prohibit scraping Southwest’s flight data and selling Southwest flights without authorization. The court also found that Southwest made a sufficient showing that Kiwi’s scraping and unauthorized sale of tickets, if not barred, would result in irreparable harm. In ultimately granting Southwest’s request for a preliminary injunction, the Texas court also found that Southwest also demonstrated the threatened injury if the injunction is denied outweighed any harm to Kiwi that will result if the injunction is granted and that the injunction would be in the public interest.

What made this result particularly notable is that the preliminary injunction is based on the likelihood of success on the merits of Southwest’s breach of contract claim and Kiwi’s alleged violation of Southwest’s site terms, as opposed to other recent scraping disputes which have centered around claims of unauthorized access under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

On July 30, 2021, a New York district court declined to dismiss copyright infringement claims with respect to an online article that included an “embedded” video (i.e., shown via a link to a video hosted on another site).  The case involved a video hosted on a social media platform that made embedding available as a function of the platform.  The court ruled that the plaintiff-photographer plausibly alleged that the defendants’ “embed” may constitute copyright infringement and violate his display right in the copyrighted video, rejecting the defendants’ argument that embedding is not a “display” when the image at issue remains on a third-party’s server (Nicklen v. Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., No. 20-10300 (S.D.N.Y. July 30, 2021)).  Notably, this is the second New York court to decline to adopt the Ninth Circuit’s “server test” first adopted in the 2007 Perfect 10 decision, which held that the infringement of the public display right in a photographic image depends, in part, on where the image was hosted.  With this being the latest New York court finding the server test inapt for an online infringement case outside of the search engine context (even if other meritorious defenses may exist), website publishers have received another stark reminder to reexamine inline linking practices.

With the change in administrations in Washington, there has been a drive to enact or amend legislation in a variety of areas. However, most initiatives lack the zeal found with the bipartisan interest in “reining in social media” and pursuing reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).  As we have documented,, the parade of bills and approaches to curtail the scope of the immunities given to “interactive computer services” under CDA Section 230 has come from both sides of the aisle (even if the justifications for such reform differ along party lines). The latest came on February 5, 2021, when Senators Warner, Hirono and Klobuchar announced the SAFE TECH Act.  The SAFE TECH Act would limit CDA immunity by enacting “targeted exceptions”  to the law’s broad grant of immunity.

On January 14, 2021, Southwest Airlines Co. (“Southwest”) filed a complaint in a Texas district court against an online travel site, Kiwi.com, Inc. (“Kiwi”), alleging, among other things, that Kiwi’s scraping of fare information from Southwest’s website constituted a breach of contract and a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). (Southwest Airlines Co. v. Kiwi.com, Inc., No. 21-00098 (N.D. Tex. filed Jan. 14, 2021)). Southwest is no stranger in seeking and, in most cases, obtaining injunctive relief against businesses that have harvested its fare data without authorization – ranging as far back as the 2000s (See e.g., Southwest Airlines Co. v. BoardFirst, LLC, No. 06-0891 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 12, 2007), and as recently as two years ago, when we wrote about a 2019 settlement Southwest entered into with an online entity that scraped Southwest’s site and had offered a fare notification service, all contrary to Southwest’s terms.

According to the current complaint, Kiwi operates an online travel agency and engaged in the unauthorized scraping of Southwest flight and pricing data and the selling of Southwest tickets (along with allegedly charging unauthorized service fees), all in violation of the Southwest site terms. Upon learning of Kiwi’s scraping activities, Southwest sent multiple cease and desist letters informing Kiwi of its breach of the Southwest terms. It demanded that Kiwi cease scraping fare data, publishing fares on Kiwi’s site and using Southwest’s “Heart” logo in conjunction with the selling of tickets. Kiwi responded and sought to form a business relationship, an overture that Southwest refused.  According to Southwest, when discussions failed to yield a resolution, Kiwi allegedly continued its prior activities, prompting the filing of the suit.

The appetite for acquisitions and investment in online businesses has never been stronger, with many of the most attractive online opportunities being businesses that host, manage and leverage user-generated content.  These businesses often rely on the immunities offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. §230 (“Section 230” or the “CDA”) to protect them from liability associated with receiving, editing and posting or removing such content.  And investors have relied on the existence of robust immunity under the CDA in evaluating the risk associated with such investments in such businesses.  This seemed reasonable, as following the legacy of the landmark 1997 Zeran decision, for more than two decades courts have fairly consistently interpreted Section 230 to provide broad immunity for online providers of all types.

However, in the last five years or so, the bipartisan critics of the CDA have gotten more full-throated in decrying the presence of hate speech, revenge porn, defamation, disinformation and other objectionable content on online platforms. This issue has been building throughout the past year, and has reached a fever pitch in the weeks leading up to the election. The government’s zeal for “reining in social media” and pursuing reforms to Section 230, again, on a bipartisan basis, has come through loud and clear (even if the justifications for such reform differ on party lines). While we cannot predict exactly what structure these reforms will take, the political winds suggest that regardless of the administration in charge, change is afoot for the CDA in late 2020 or 2021. Operating businesses must take note, and investors should keep this in mind when conducting diligence reviews concerning potential investments.

In continuing its efforts to enforce its terms and policies against developers that engage in unauthorized scraping of user data, this week Facebook brought suit against two marketing analytics firms, BrandTotal Ltd (“BrandTotal”) and Unimania, Inc. (“Unimania”) (collectively, the “Defendants”) (Facebook, Inc. v. BrandTotal Ltd., No. 20Civ04246

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. §230 (“Section 230” or the “CDA”), enacted in 1996, is generally viewed as the most important statute supporting the growth of Internet commerce.  The key provision of the CDA, Section 230(c)(1)(a), only 26 words long, simply states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This one sentence has been the source of bedrock service provider immunity for third party content made available through a provider’s infrastructure, thus enabling the growth of a vigorous online ecosystem. Without such immunity, providers would have to face what the Ninth Circuit once termed, “death by ten thousand duck-bites,” in having to fend off claims that they promoted or tacitly assented to objectionable third party content.

The brevity of this provision of the CDA is deceptive, however. The CDA – and the immunity it conveys – is controversial, and those 26 words have been the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of litigations.  Critics of the CDA point to the proliferation of hate speech, revenge porn, defamatory material, disinformation and other objectionable content – in many cases, the sites hosting such third party content (knowingly or unknowingly) are protected by the broad scope of the CDA. Other objections are merely based on unhappiness about the content of the speech, albeit in many cases true, such as comments that are critical of individuals, their businesses or their interests. Litigants upset about such content have sought various CDA workarounds over the past two decades in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to bypass the immunity and reach the underlying service providers.

The back-and-forth debate around the scope and effects of the CDA and the broad discretion afforded online providers regarding content hosting and moderation decisions is not new.  However, it was brought into a new focus when the President, vexed at the way some of his more controversial posts were being treated by certain social media platforms, issued a May 20, 2020 Executive Order for the purpose of curtailing legal protections for online providers. The goal was to remedy what the White House believed was the online platforms’ “deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints.”

The Executive Order – which is currently being challenged in court as unconstitutional – directed several federal agencies to undertake certain legislative and regulatory efforts toward CDA reform. Consequently, in June 2020 the DOJ stated “that the time is ripe to realign the scope of Section 230 with the realities of the modern internet” and released a 28-page document with its preliminary recommendations for reform of Section 230.  A month later, the Commerce Department submitted a petition requesting that the FCC write rules to limit the scope of CDA immunity and place potentially additional compliance requirements on many providers that host third party content.  Then, on September 23, 2020, the DOJ announced that it had sent its legislative proposal for amending the CDA to Congress. The DOJ, in its cover letter to Congress, summed up the need for reform: “The proposed legislation accordingly seeks to align the scope of Section 230 immunities with the realities of the modern internet while ensuring that the internet remains a place for free and vibrant discussion.”