On August 5, 2021, a proposed class action settlement was reached in the closely-watched privacy action against fintech services company Plaid Inc. (“Plaid”).  The settlement features a $58 million settlement fund and certain injunctive relief that would make changes to Plaid’s methods of notice and consumer data collection, including provisions requiring the deletion of certain banking transaction data. (In re Plaid Inc. Privacy Litig., No. 20-3056 (N.D. Cal. Memorandum of Points for Proposed Settlement Aug. 5, 2021)). The settlement is still subject to court approval.

Plaid is a fintech services company that offers applications that provide account linking and verification services for various fintech apps that consumers use to send and receive money from their bank accounts.  The consolidated actions involve claims surrounding Plaid’s alleged collection and use of consumers’ banking login credentials and later processing and selling of such financial transaction data to third parties without adequate notice or consent.  Plaintiffs’ complaint also contended that at no time were users ever given conspicuous notice or meaningfully prompted to read through Plaid’s privacy policy indicating that Plaid receives and retains access to their financial institution account login credentials or uses their credentials to collect and sell their banking information.   As we wrote about back in May 2021, the California district court, in deciding Plaid’s motion to dismiss, trimmed various federal privacy-related claims, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) claim, but allowed other state law privacy claims to go forward.

On April 30, 2021 a California district court trimmed various federal privacy-related claims, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) claim, from a highly-visible, ongoing putative class action against fintech services company Plaid Inc. (“Plaid”), but allowed other state law privacy claims to go forward.  The lawsuit involves Plaid’s alleged collection and use of consumers’ banking login credentials and later processing and selling of such financial transaction data to third parties without adequate notice or consent (Cottle v. Plaid Inc., No. 20-3056 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 30, 2021).

The court’s decision did not delve deeply in the merits of the CFAA claim, as it was dismissed on procedural grounds; similarly, resolution of the major issues of the case about invasion of privacy and the adequacy of consent to access consumers’ bank accounts and collect/aggregate data was not achieved at this early stage of the litigation.  Thus, this case is just beginning and is certainly one to watch to see how the unsettled areas of mobile privacy and CFAA “unauthorized access” are further developed.

Happy Silver Anniversary to Section 230 of Communications Decency Act (“CDA” or “Section 230”), which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in February 1996. At that time, Congress enacted CDA Section 230 in response to case law that raised the specter of liability for any online service provider that attempted to moderate its platform, thus discouraging the screening out and blocking of offensive material. As has been extensively reported on this blog, the world of social media and user-generated content is supported by protections afforded by Section 230. Now, 25 years later, the CDA is at a crossroads of sorts and its protections have stoked some controversy. Yet, as it stands, Section 230 continues to provide robust immunity for online providers.

In a recent case, Google LLC (“Google”) successfully argued for the application of Section 230, resulting in a California district court ­dismissing, with leave to amend, a putative class action alleging consumer protection law claims against the Google Play App Store.  The claims concerned the offering for download of third party mobile video games that allow users to buy Loot Boxes, which are in-app purchases that contain a randomized assortment of items that can improve a player’s chances at advancing in a videogame.  The plaintiffs claimed these offerings constituted illegal “slot machines or devices” under California law.  (Coffee v. Google LLC, No. 20-03901 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 10, 2021)).

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.

New York has enacted a new law, effective February 9, 2021, regulating automatic renewal and some “free trial” type agreements. While some organizations may have already taken steps to be in compliance with industry requirements, the federal Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA), and similar auto-renewal laws in place

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.

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.”

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.

Last week, a putative privacy-related class action was filed in California district court against financial analytics firm Envestnet, Inc. (“Envestnet”), which operates Yodlee, Inc. (“Yodlee”). (Wesch v. Yodlee Inc., No. 20-05991 (N.D. Cal. filed Aug. 25, 2020)). According to the complaint, Yodlee is one of the largest financial data aggregators in the world and through its software platforms, which are built into various fintech products offered by financial institutions, it aggregates financial data such as bank balances and credit card transaction histories from individuals in the United States. The crux of the suit is that Yodlee collects and then sells access to such anonymized financial data without meaningful notice to consumers, and stores or transmits such data without adequate security, all in violation of California and federal privacy laws.

The timing of this case is interesting, as it comes on the heels of the recent settlement of the litigation the between the City Attorney of Los Angeles and the operator of a weather app over claims that locational information collected through the weather app was being sold to third parties without adequate permission from the user of the app.

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).