Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, where she also directs the graduate program on Sustainable International Development. She is also a member of the Law, Technology and Arts Group at at the Law School.

Prior to joining the University of Washington faculty, Professor Ramasastry was a staff attorney at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Ramasastry graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and clerked for Justice Alan B. Handler of the New Jersey Supreme Court. She has also practiced law with the international law firm of White & Case in Budapest, Hungary, and served as an assistant professor of law and law reform associate at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary (founded by financier George Soros). She has been a consultant to the World Bank, the US Department of Commerce, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as well as the United States Agency for International Development. Ramasastry writes on law and technology, consumer and commercial law, and international law and globalization.

Columns by Anita Ramasastry

Progressive Car Insurance’s “Snapshot” Experiment: Should Consumers Be Wary of Being Individually Tracked While Driving?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on instances of usage-based insurance (UBI), and warns of the risk of using this kind of technology until and unless it is carefully regulated. UBI programs use up-to-the-minute data on drivers, and safe drivers get discounts as a result, but UBI systems may also raise privacy concerns. Ramasastry focuses especially on Progressive Insurance’s “Snapshot” program, which showed that actual driving behavior is the best predictor of all of driver risk. Ramasastry suggests that UBI programs need to be closely regulated in order to ensure that the information they glean about drivers is not put to other uses, to which drivers did not specifically and carefully consent. While Progressive itself does not use GPS, but instead depends on other driving-related information, Ramasastry notes that other companies may well require GPS tracking in the future, or may offer it in exchange for lower rates.

Digital Parody and the Shell Arctic Hoax: Did the Yes Men Cross A Legal Line With Their Most Recent Brandalism?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on legal issues regarding the “Yes Men”—a group that creates faux websites and events in order to take aim at corporations, and other entities, the actions of which they oppose. While parody is strongly protected under Supreme Court precedent, Ramasastry notes that the Yes Men’s work is somewhat different from traditional parody, which makes the difference between the parody and its target very clear, very quickly. Ramasastry suggests that in the future, the Yes Men’s strategy may be tested, for the Yes Men’s actions may cause more confusion—and for that reason, may not receive, in court, the full protection that clear, non-confusing parodies enjoy. Ramasastry concludes that even if that is the case, this will have little impact on the Yes Men’s strategies—beyond changing the corporate names on their parody sites.

Cyber-Screening, Social Media, and Fair Credit Reporting: Why We Need to Move Beyond the FTC’s Recent Spokeo Enforcement Action

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the current use of social-media data in decisions made by employers regarding whether to hire a potential employee, or retain a current employee. While we are used to being judged by our credit reports, the use of our social-media information is much more recent and novel, as Ramasastry explains. And yet, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), Ramasastry notes, does apply to the use of social-media information—as the company Spokeo recently learned, when it was subject to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforcement action and a hefty fine, based on its use of social-media information. Ramasastry discusses the possible issues with, and ramifications of, this fairly novel use of social-media information in employment decisions, and explains how current federal law may apply.

The Orbitz Controversy: Why Steering Mac Users Toward Higher-Priced Hotels Is Arguably Wrong, and What Might be Done About It

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses two controversial online business practices: steering, and differential pricing. Steering, which the travel site Orbitz has used, directs potential customers to options that they may be likely to choose, based on other information the site knows about the customer — for instance, whether he or…

Are Teen Flirting Sites Safe? The Skout Experiment Provides a Cautionary Tale

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the lessons to be learned from the recent experience of Skout, which initially offered teen and adult flirting sites and apps. In the wake of three separate allegations by teens of rape by an adult whom they met via Skout and who was posing as a teen on the site, Skout has closed down its teen site and app. Ramasastry notes that Skout was always vigilant about the risk of adults impersonating teens, but vigilance, in the end, wasn’t enough. Thus, Ramasastry raises the possibility that society—and especially teens’ parents—should discourage teen meet-up business models that carry the kind of risks that Skout’s teen site did.

Facebook Junior? The Implications of Expanding Facebook’s Universe to the Under-13 Crowd

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the legal implications of Facebook’s reported plan to allow under-13 children to join the site. (Officially, under-13 children now cannot join, although that policy is often honored in the breach.) Ramasastry comments on why Facebook is now seeking out the under-13 crowd; notes the strictures of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and how they may apply here; and describes how the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has enforced COPPA against other websites in the past. Ramasastry also comments on some of the possible downsides of letting under-13 children officially join Facebook, if that becomes possible—including children’s immaturity when it comes to posting, and the ways in which Facebook may use children’s information, in part by marketing to them. She also raises the question whether Facebook users will truly want a Timeline that lasts a lifetime, or whether they may want to ignore or forget some of the indiscretions and immaturity of their youth. Finally, Ramasastry advises parents on measures they may want to take soon, before the new under-13 Facebook kicks in.

A Federal Judge Draws the Right Line in Interpreting a Utah Law Regarding Web Content That Is Deemed Harmful to Minors

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a recent First Amendment/Internet law ruling from a Utah-based federal judge. As Ramasastry explains, the ruling limited the scope of a a Utah law that (1) criminalized knowingly or intentionally disseminating harmful content to minors over the Internet, and (2) required website operators to tag or label such content in such a way that the tags or labels can be picked up by search engines. Ramasastry argues that the court struck the right balance by upholding but clarifying the first part of the law, and striking down the second part on First Amendment grounds. When it comes to screening content, she adds, the best solution is not a legal one. The better solution is, she argues, for parents to select screening software if they so choose; and for parents to have a serious talk with their kids to prepare them to deal psychologically with the kind of explicit material that they are likely to see, one way or another, even if parents do install screening software on all home computers.

Can Buying a Plane Ticket Also Buy You Love? The New World of Travel Dating and Its Possible Personal and Legal Risks

Justia columnist Anita Ramasastry comments on the legal issues that may arise from MissTravel.com, a website that says that it matches “generous travelers who hate to travel alone with attractive travelers who would love the opportunity to travel the world for free.” The site has been compared to an online escort service, although the site itself argues that the analogy is unfair. Ramasastry considers the legal issues that may arise from the Miss Travel site—focusing both on (1) whether the site could get in trouble if illegal activity ensues, and (2) whether there is any recourse if the companion of the “generous traveler” gets into hot water when the two are overseas. Ramasastry also notes that state Attorneys General have gone after online escort ads’ host sites, but that such sites are generally immune from civil liability for user postings under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Still, Ramasastry notes, under certain circumstances such sites might be hit with criminal charges if they knowingly induce prostitution. She notes, however, that Miss Travel is importantly different from such sites.

Mug Shot Mania: The Legal and Policy Issues Surrounding Private Websites’ Postings of Arrest Photos

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the phenomenon of Internet mug shot galleries. Unlike a Megan’s Law database, Ramasastry explains, these galleries show photos of arrestees, who have not yet been, and may never be, convicted of any crime. That raises fairness issues, Ramasastry argues. Moreover, she notes that not only police departments, but also private companies, collect such photos together into mug-shot galleries. Because the private companies’ galleries tend to dominate search results, arrestees have no recourse except to pay the private companies to take down the photos. Because of issues like these, Ramasastry argues that this is an area that is ripe for reform—for you can now be exonerated in court, but not on Google. She also briefly discusses the phenomenon of police departments putting mug shots on their Facebook pages.

Stalker Apps? “Girls Around Me” Highlights the Privacy Perils of Geolocation Apps

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the “Girls Around Me” app, which Apple has now pulled from the iTunes app store, and Foursquare has also pulled. As Ramasastry notes, concerns were raised that the app—which showed photos and information taken from Facebook and Foursquare—could compromise privacy and enable the harassment of women. Ramasastry contends that in order to address such concerns, some websites’ Terms of Use need to be clarified, and we need to carefully consider the extent to which third-party developers can use, harvest, and manipulate data relating to individuals and their lives. She also calls for a federal law to better protect consumer privacy, including in the context of apps like these, and warns that laws and policies must take notice of the context in which a person’s information is being used, for some uses may be innocuous, and others pernicious.

Can Employers Legally Ask You for Your Facebook Password When You Apply for a Job? Why Congress and the States Should Prohibit This Practice

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the emerging law relating to whether potential employers may ask job applicants for their Facebook (and other social-media) passwords. Ramasastry describes efforts at both the federal and state level to prevent such practices, and to preserve the privacy of Facebook (and other social-media) users. In addition, she argues that these practices should indeed be illegal (to the extent that they are not already), in part because they may facilitate illegal discrimination. Ramasastry notes that two court decisions in this area of law sided with social-media users and against employers. She also points out that Facebook itself seems to be on the side of users who would like to keep their Facebook postings private from potential employers, but argues that Facebook users are still well advised to scrub their profiles of information and photos that might make a future employer balk.

Catching Warlords via Viral Videos: A Film About Joseph Kony Offers Us a New Vision of How to End Impunity

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the “Kony2012” 30-minute video, which recently received over 75 million views on YouTube and film-sharing site Vimeo—with even the White House taking notice. As Ramasastry explains, the video is a profile of the brutal warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his war crimes. Kony, a native Ugandan, mounted a war against Uganda’s government, using tactics including the recruitment of child soldiers and the commission of atrocities. Ramasastry covers Kony’s crimes; notes the praise for, and criticism of, the “Kony2012” video; and concludes that, despite some drawbacks and criticisms, the “Kony2012” video has proven to be an effective way to exert pressure for justice to be done.

Should Target Tell Your Loved Ones You Are Pregnant, Or Should You? The Perils of Consumer Data Aggregation, Including Loss of Privacy

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry considers the sometimes disturbing ways in which retailers—both brick-and-mortar or online—use consumer data. Beginning with a New York Times story that related how a father learned of his teenage daughter's pregnancy when Target started sending her baby-related coupons, Ramasastry suggests that regulation is necessary if consumer privacy is to be protected, and that such regulation probably should render certain areas of private information strictly off-limits. Ramasastry discusses the Obama Administration's proposed set of consumer-privacy principles, called the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, and notes that the Administration's stance is that if Congress will not enact such principles into law, then the FTC has the power to enforce them via regulation. Ramasastry also discusses what, specifically, such principles could mean for retailers like Target. Finally, Ramasastry discusses existing websites that can help consumers protect their online privacy.

Divorce, Digital Identities, and Virtual Property: Who Gets Your Facebook Friends and Farmville Dollars When You Split Up?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry addresses the intersection of divorce, digital identities and virtual property. In the course of her analysis, she asks an interesting question that is likely to become more and more prevalent, as virtual property becomes ever more popular and more valuable: When a couple is divorcing, what happens to their virtual property? Ramasastry also notes the role that Facebook has played as a cause or factor in many divorces, and considers the questions of whether, and how, virtual property should be divided in divorce proceedings. Moreover, noting the increasing use of social-networking activity in such proceedings, Ramasastry suggests that it's wise to be less social online—especially regarding new relationships—while divorce proceedings are still ongoing.

Facebook’s New Timeline Feature: Will It Increase Users’ Risk of Identity Theft?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on Facebook's new, mandatory “Timeline” feature, and the possibility that this feature may make identify theft targeted at Facebook users easier to accomplish. As she explains, Timeline encourages users to volunteer additional information, beyond what they had previously provided to Facebook. Also, Timeline will work in conjunction with a set of “frictionless” apps that will not notify the Facebook user each time his or her information is shared with a person or business With more and more information about people becoming available online on sites like Facebook, Ramasastry argues, both online and offline identity theft may well become simpler and more common.

Facebook’s “If I Die” App Should Remind Us That We Each Need a Digital Death Plan

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry points out that even if we are using the “If I Die” app, which allows Facebook users to send a final message to loved ones, there are many other aspects of our digital lives that will also need attention when we die, and for which we should also plan. Ramasastry covers the provisions for user death in the Terms of Service (ToS) of popular online services such as Yahoo!, Gmail, Facebook, Apple, and YouTube. She also considers questions relating to the inheritance of digital property ranging from copyrighted online work, to virtual property with real-world value. Ramasastry also comments on why one might want to use a “digital undertaker” service; on the need to amend states’ law across the country in order to protect virtual property; and on the state-law question whether the rights of privacy and publicity can—and should—survive a person’s death.

Will Insurers Begin to Use Social Media Postings to Calculate Premiums? A Look at Some Startling Trends and the Possible Consequences for Consumers

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the potential uses of social networking information in the insurance industry. She notes that if, for instance, a person’s Facebook photos contradict information that the person has told his or her insurer, trouble may result. Ramasastry gives examples such as a claimed non-drinker whose Facebook photos reveal heavy drinking, or a claimed non-smoker who is pictured on Facebook smoking. She notes that when fraud is already suspected by an insurance company, some companies consider it fair game to then check the insured’s social media. Moreover, Ramasastry reports that the next wave of the use of social media in the insurance sector may well involve underwriters, who may begin using such media to create risk profiles of potential insureds. She describes Deloitte’s approach, and explains why using social media is a logical next step for underwriters, who already access massive stores of data regarding potential insureds. Ramasastry also notes some of the risks of these developments—such as an insurer’s taking inferences from a social media profile that are not accurate (say, due to a mistagged photo), or that cannot be fairly generalized (such as a photo of a teetotaler taking a single sip of a drink to be polite).

Social Networking and Airline Travel: What the Legal Consequences of an Airline’s “Meet and Seat” Program Might Be

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the possible legal implications of an airline’s “Meet and Seat” program, which allows passengers to find out information about other travelers, and select the person whom they will sit next to on a flight, based on Facebook profiles and LinkedIn accounts. The upside of the program is that fliers can network with each other, or even have a first date while in the air. But the downside, Ramasastry argues, may be considerable, depending on how the details of the program are fleshed out. Ramasastry anticipates possible problems with fictitious profiles, sexual and other types of harassment, discrimination, and even de facto segregation if groups decide to sit together based on race, religion, or the like. Ramasastry also points to group-then-go charters, made easier by smart phone technology, as a less problematic way to employ social networking to ensure that travelers can opt to fly with people who share their interests and destinations.

A Patient Sues His Dentist Over a Contractual Ban on His Posting Negative Online Reviews of Her Work: Why His Class Action Appears to Have Merit

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the recent controversy over doctors (and other healthcare providers) who require their patients to sign contracts stating that they will not post reviews of the doctor (or other healthcare provider) on review-and-rating websites, such as Yelp.com and the like. In addition, Ramasastry explains, a clause contained in the contracts at issue purports to transfer the patients’ copyright in any such reviews to the doctor—presumably so that the doctor can have such reviews quickly and directly taken down after they are posted. Ramasastry describes the class action lawsuit that is pending with respect to such contracts, and the allegations of a plaintiff in the suit. She also explains other kinds of challenges to this type of contract that are being made in other venues, and describes several useful websites that seek to inform patients of their rights and options when they are required by their doctor or other health-care provider to sign such a contract.

Dealing with E-personation: A Recent New Jersey Case Shows Why New Laws Aren’t Really Needed to Address Fake Facebook Profiles and the Like

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on recently-enacted state laws that cover the growing occurrence of “e-personation.” As Ramasastry explains, “e-personation” occurs when thieves, scam artists, people seeking revenge, or bullies use the Internet to pretend to be someone else—either by creating a fake Facebook or web profile, or by communicating via email with third parties under a false name. She notes that the object of e-personation is often to defraud, perhaps in order to gain the target’s confidential information. Ramasastry considers whether separate e-personation laws are really necessary, and contrasts California’s and New Jersey’s respective approaches to e-personation. She argues that, in most circumstances, it is not necessary for states to pass a special law to reach e-personation, since the laws already on the books will suffice. Noting that currently, only California, New York, and Texas have separate e-personation statutes, she urges other states not to follow suit and simply enforce the laws they already have. She also discusses the possible First Amendment issues raised by some applications of e-personation laws.