Electronic Contracting

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.

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.

Last month, a California district court granted a web-based service’s motion to compel arbitration of a putative class action brought by a user whose personal information was allegedly accessed in a massive 2016 data breach that involved 339 million user accounts. (Gutierrez v. FriendFinder Networks Inc., No. 18-05918 (N.D. Cal. May 3, 2019)). While the opinion noted that courts in the Ninth Circuit are traditionally “reluctant to enforce browsewrap agreements against individual consumers,” the outcome of the case suggests that enforcement of website terms is not just a straight up-or-down analysis of the method used to present the terms to the user but may involve tangential, yet important interactions between the user and the site outside the initial registration process. 

In Starke v. SquareTrade, Inc., No. 17-2474, 2019 WL 149628 (2d Cir. Jan. 10, 2019), the Second Circuit affirmed a ruling that denied a web service’s motion to compel arbitration, finding that the user did not have reasonable notice of the arbitration provision contained in the terms and conditions that were communicated via a hyperlink in a post-sale email.

File this latest opinion declining to enforce a service’s terms under Crowded Interface, Unclear Prompts and Muddled Process.

While the court recognized that a party has a duty to read a contract, it stressed that this does not morph into a duty to “ferret out contract provisions when they are contained in inconspicuous hyperlinks,” particularly where, as in this case, the user was presented with multiple documents, each containing different sets of terms. This dispute was reminiscent of a Second Circuit case we wrote about in 2012, where the court held that a buy now-agree later process did not provide sufficient notice to consumers of an arbitration provision contained in the post-sale terms.

In an unpublished opinion, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that had sent a putative class action against Amazon over its pricing practices to arbitration, as per Amazon’s terms of service. (Wiseley v. Amazon.com, Inc., No. 15-56799 (9th Cir. Sept. 19, 2017) (unpublished)).  In finding that Amazon’s “Conditions of Use” were not unconscionable and presented in a reasonable manner, this holding differs from a Second Circuit decision from last year that declined to compel arbitration because reasonable minds could disagree regarding the sufficiency of notice provided to Amazon.com customers when placing an order through the website. (On remand, a New York magistrate judge ruled that the court should grant Amazon’s motion to compel arbitration on other grounds based upon the plaintiff’s constructive knowledge of the terms.)

This past summer, we wrote about two instances in which courts refused to enforce website terms presented in browsewrap agreements.  As we noted, clickthrough agreements are generally more likely to be found to be enforced.  However, even the enforceability of clickthrough agreements is going to depend, in part, on how the user experience leading to the “agreement” is designed.  Two recent decisions illustrate the importance of web design and the presentation of the “call to action” language in determining the enforceability of a site’s clickthrough terms.

In a decision from early November, a D.C. federal court ruled that an Airbnb user who signed up on a mobile device had assented to the service’s Terms and was bound to arbitrate his claims. (Selden v. Airbnb, Inc., 2016 WL 6476934 (D.D.C. Nov. 1, 2016)).   Conversely, in a notable decision from late August, the Second Circuit refused to rule as a matter of law that the plaintiff was bound by the arbitration clause contained in Amazon’s terms and conditions because the plaintiff did not necessarily assent to and was on constructive notice of the terms when he completed the purchase in question. (Nicosia v. Amazon.com, Inc., 2016 WL 4473225 (2d Cir. Aug. 25, 2016)).

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.