Many online services feature comprehensive terms of use intended to protect their business from various types of risks.  While it is often the case that a great deal of thought goes into the creation of those terms, frequently less attention is paid to how those terms are actually presented to users of the service. As case law continues to demonstrate, certain mobile and website presentations will be held to be enforceable, others will not.  Courts continue to indicate that enforceability of terms accessible by hyperlink depends on the totality of the circumstances, namely the clarity and conspicuousness of the relevant interface (both web and mobile) presenting the terms to the user. In a prior post about electronic contracting this year, we outlined, among other things, the danger of having a cluttered registration screen.  In this post, we will spotlight five recent rulings from the past few months where courts blessed the mobile contracting processes of e-commerce companies, as well as one case which demonstrates the danger of using a pre-checked box to indicate assent to online terms.

The moral of these stories is clear – the presentation of online terms is essential to enhancing the likelihood that they will be enforced, if need be. Thus, the design of the registration or sign-up page is not just an issue for the marketing, design and technical teams – the legal team must focus on how a court would likely view a registration interface, including pointing out the little things that can make a big difference in enforceability. A failure to present the terms properly could result in the most carefully drafted terms of service ultimately having no impact on the business at all.

The currents around the Communications Decency Act just got a little more turbulent as the White House and executive branch try to reel in the big fish of CDA reform.

On July 27, 2020, the Commerce Department submitted a petition requesting the FCC initiate a rulemaking to clarify the provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Unrelated, but part of the same fervor in Washington to “rein in social media,” the leaders of the major technology companies appeared before the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee at a hearing yesterday, July 29, 2020, to discuss the Committee’s ongoing investigation of competition in the digital marketplace, where some members inquired about content moderation practices. Moreover, last month, a pair of Senators introduced the PACT Act, a targeted (but still substantial) update to the CDA (and other CDA reform bills are also being debated, including a bill to carve out sexually exploitative material involving children from the CDA`s reach).

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), 47 U.S.C. §230, enacted in 1996, is often cited as the most important law supporting the Internet, e-commerce and the online economy. Yet, it continues to be subject to intense criticism, including from politicians from both sides of the aisle. Many argue that the CDA has been applied in situations far beyond the original intent of Congress when the statue was enacted. Critics point to the role the CDA has played in protecting purveyors of hate speech, revenge porn, defamation, disinformation and other objectionable content.

Critics of the CDA raise valid concerns.  But what is the right way to address them? One must remember that for organizations that operate websites, mobile apps, social media networks, corporate networks and other online services, the CDA’s protections are extremely important.  Many of those businesses could be impaired if they were subject to liability (or the threat of liability) for objectionable third party content residing on their systems.

The criticism surrounding the CDA hit a fever pitch on May 28, 2020 when the President weighed in on the issue by signing an Executive Order attempting to curtail legal protections under Section 230. While the Executive Order was roundly labelled as political theater – and is currently being challenged in court as unconstitutional – it notably directed the Justice Department to submit draft proposed legislation (i.e., a CDA reform bill) to accomplish the policy objectives of the Order. This week, on June 17, 2020, the DOJ announced “that the time is ripe to realign the scope of Section 230 with the realities of the modern internet” and released a document with its recommendations for legislative reform of Section 230.  This is on the heels of a recent initiative by several GOP lawmakers to introduce their own version of a reform bill.

In recent years, courts have issued a host of rulings as to whether online or mobile users received adequate notice of and consented to user agreements or website terms when completing an online purchase or registering for a service. Some online agreements have been enforced, while others have not. In each case, judges have examined the circumstances behind the transaction closely, scrutinizing the user interface and how the terms are presented before a user completes a transaction. In general, most courts seek to determine whether the terms are reasonably conspicuous to the prudent internet user and whether the user manifested sufficient assent by signing up for a service or completing a transaction.

From the perspective of making a sign-up process as smooth as possible, there is often an interest in moving the reference to terms and conditions out of the main flow of user sign-ups.  However, as we were reminded recently by an Illinois court examining the interfaces of DVD rental company Redbox, one does so at risk of finding those terms to be unenforceable.

The Illinois court noted numerous shortcomings with Redbox’s electronic contracting process.  It found that because links to the relevant terms were not clearly and conspicuously displayed, customers did not have constructive notice that they were assenting to those terms when hitting the “Pay Now” button to rent a DVD at a kiosk or by signing into a Redbox account online. (Wilson v. Redbox Automated Retail, LLC, No. 19-01993 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 25, 2020)). As such, the court denied Redbox’s motion to compel arbitration of plaintiff’s claims.

Teami, LLC (“Teami”), a marketer of teas and skincare products, agreed to settle FTC charges alleging that its retained social media influencers did not sufficiently disclose that they were being paid to promote Teami’s products. The FTC’s Complaint also included allegations that Teami made unsupported weight-loss and health claims about its products, an issue that is beyond the scope of this blog post. The Stipulated Order for Permanent Injunction and Monetary Judgment was approved by a Florida district on March 17, 2020.

This settlement is significant in that it identifies clear steps that an advertiser can follow in the interest of avoiding similar FTC allegations of deception with respect to paid endorsers. Compliance in this area remains an ongoing concern as the FTC reiterated in a statement accompanying the settlement that: “[T]he Commission is committed to seeking strong remedies against advertisers that deceive consumers because deceptive or inaccurate information online prevents consumers from making informed purchasing decisions….”

Despite continued scrutiny over the legal immunity online providers enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), online platforms continue to successfully invoke its protections. This is illustrated by three recent decisions in which courts dismissed claims that sought to impose liability on providers for hosting or restricting access to user content and for providing a much-discussed social media app filter.

In one case, a California district court dismissed a negligence claim against online real estate database Zillow over a fraudulent posting, holding that any allegation of a duty to monitor new users and prevent false listing information inherently derives from Zillow’s status as a publisher and is therefore barred by the CDA. (924 Bel Air Road LLC v. Zillow Group Inc., No. 19-01368 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 18, 2020)). In the second, the Ninth Circuit, in an important ruling, affirmed the dismissal of claims against YouTube for violations of the First Amendment and the Lanham Act over its decision to restrict access to the plaintiff’s uploaded videos. The Ninth Circuit found that despite YouTube’s ubiquity and its role as a public-facing platform, it is a private forum not subject to judicial scrutiny under the First Amendment. It also found that its statements concerning its content moderation policies could not form a basis of false advertising liability. (Prager Univ. v. Google LLC, No. 18-15712 (9th Cir. Feb. 26, 2020)). And in a third case, the operator of the messaging app Snapchat was granted CDA immunity in a wrongful death suit brought by individuals killed in a high-speed automobile crash where one of the boys in the car had sent a snap using the app’s Speed Filter, which had captured the speed of the car at 123MPH, minutes before the fatal accident. (Lemmon v. Snap, Inc., No. 19-4504 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 25, 2020)).   

With the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), many organizations are requiring or permitting employees to work remotely.  This post is intended to remind employers and employees that in the haste to implement widespread work-from-home strategies, data security concerns cannot be forgotten.

Employers and employees alike should remain vigilant of increased cybersecurity threats, some of which specifically target remote access strategies.  Unfortunately, as noted in a prior blog post, cybercriminals will not be curtailing their efforts to access valuable data during the outbreak, and in fact, will likely take advantage of some of the confusion and communication issues that might arise under the circumstances to perpetrate their schemes.

Employees working from home may be accessing or transmitting company trade secrets as well as personal information of individuals. Inappropriate exposure of either type of data can lead to significant adverse consequences for a company.  Exposure of trade secrets or confidential business information can potentially cause significant business damage or loss. Exposure of personal information can potentially trigger state or federal data breach notification laws, and result in significant liabilities for a company as well as expanded identity theft issues for individuals.  The threat is not only an online concern – physical security is at issue as well. Unauthorized access to printed copies of sensitive documents could lead to additional exposures.

Epic Games, Inc. (“Epic”) is the publisher of the popular online multiplayer videogame Fortnite, released in 2017. In recent years, Fortnight has gained worldwide popularity with gamers and esports followers (culminating in July 2019 when a sixteen-year-old player won the $3 million prize for winning the Fortnite World Cup).  Players, in one version of the game, are dropped onto a virtual landscape and compete in a battle royale to survive.  In the real world, Epic recently survived its own encounter – not with the help of scavenged weapons or shield potions – but through its well-drafted end user license agreement (“EULA” or “terms”).

Earlier this month, the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina granted Epic’s motion to compel individual arbitration of the claims of a putative class action.  The action arose in connection with a cyber vulnerability that allowed hackers to breach user accounts. The court concluded that the arbitration provision contained in the EULA was enforceable in this case, even where a minor was the person who ultimately assented to the terms. (Heidbreder v. Epic Games, Inc., No. 19-348 (E.D.N.C. Feb. 3, 2020)).