Analysis and Commentary on Consumer Law

Are Internet Providers, in Fact, at Risk for Defamation Liability?

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the case of Sarah Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment, which he notes raises a fundamental question about the scope of immunity from defamation liability for Internet Service Providers under Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act (CDA). Dean predicts that the case will be watched closely, as an indication of whether the courts will, in fact, start policing the nearly unlimited immunity that has evolved under Section 230. There are good arguments on both sides of this case, Dean notes, making the case an especially interesting one.

Should There Be a Right to Reclaim Your Name? The Harm of Errors in Consumer-Data Collection and Some Possible Solutions

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on consumers' problems with correcting credit reports that are inaccurate and damaging. She also describes a related FTC initiative in this area that helps consumers regain their good names, and their good credit, when credit-report errors have unfairly soiled them.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Crusade to Block Internet Porn: Why His Plan Is Messier Than He Thinks

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the controversy in the U.K. regarding Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for government Internet filtering. She notes that while almost everyone agrees that children’s Internet access should be regulated, the Cameron Plan for such regulation has numerous flaws—including an overbreadth that would unfairly censor worthwhile and even educational material from which teenagers would benefit. Ramasastry notes that British teens may well find a way to avoid the filters, or change them by secretly getting their parents’ IDs. She also contrasts the U.K. proposal on filtering, with the First Amendment-informed U.S. approach to the same issues when they have arisen here vis-à-vis libraries and schools.

Shopping Under Surveillance: Why We Should Think Twice About Letting Retailers Track Us in Stores

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses the ways in which retailers at brick-and-mortar stores are profiling us. She notes that most of us realize that online stores can easily profile us, but many of us may not know that brick-and-mortar stores do the same thing in a different context. Ramasastry describes how these stores may track what we look at, where we browse and linger, what we might pick up and examine but then not ultimately buy. What department or section do we head for? How long do we spend in the sections of the store that we visit? Retailers now have access to this data due to our cellphones, but Ramasastry notes that we can thwart the surveillance by turning off the Wi-Fi feature of your phone, or putting it on airplane mode. In addition, Ramasastry urges, we ought to know when we are being monitored.

Multilevel Marketing: How to Avoid Building the Pyramid

Attorneys Jonathan E. Turco and David O. Klein comment on how companies can engage in perfectly legal multilevel marketing without running the risk of engaging in an illegal pyramid scheme. Turco and Klein detail how the two differ; explain the rules of the road regarding multilevel marketing; and comment on both state and federal regulations in this area of law, including a set of FTC safeguards.

Teens and Tiaras: Virtual Beauty Contests on Instagram, and Why the Company Should Do Something About Them

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses Instragram’s issue with users’ rating the appearance of young girls in beauty pageants online, and leaving comments both positive and negative. Ramasastry notes that such pageants may raise legal issues and privacy concerns and may trigger issues under COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Will Virtual Money Laundering Rules Stop the Illegal Use of Virtual Currencies? Why Regulators Have More Work to Do to Clarify the Rules of the Virtual Currency Road

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the regulation of virtual currencies, such as Bitcoins, that are created by private companies, and that can be used for either legal and illegal transactions, due to their ability to afford anonymity to users. Ramasastry also covers the new rules that the US Treasury will apply to such currencies; and why the rules’ guidance currently may not be sufficient to guide administrators or exchanges of new virtual currencies in a way that will provide law enforcement with the leads they need to tackle virtual money laundering.

Running Sweepstakes Promotions: An Endeavor Best Not Left to Chance

Attorneys David O. Klein and Jonathan B. Turco comment on the law regarding sweepstakes, and the risks of failing to abide by that law, which could entail very significant liability. Klein and Turco note key distinctions in this area of law, such as the distinction between games of chance and games of skill, discuss how to remove the element of consideration from a game, and cover some additional sweepstakes complexities. Finally, they make clear the difference between sweepstakes and Internet sweepstakes cafes, which are simply a set of casino-style games.

The Federal Trade Commission Takes Aim at Mobile App Privacy: Why It’s About Time

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the FTC’s recent focus on privacy protections for mobile applications, and how key players in the rapidly-expanding mobile marketplace can better inform consumers about their data collection and use practices. Ramasastry also discusses the recent FTC enforcement action that led to a settlement with Path, a mobile social network, relating to its mobile privacy practices. Path lets users keep online journals that can be shared with a limited group of family and friends. The FTC fined Path $800,000, charging the company with violating federal statutory privacy protections for children by collecting personal information on underage users. Ramasastry deems the FTC’s scrutiny of mobile apps to be appropriate and timely right now, as more and more Americans rely heavily on mobile devices.

When a Friend Is Really a Foe: Why U.S. Consumer Protection Bodies Should Regulate Debt Collectors’ Use of Social Media

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the legal issues regarding debt collection and social media. As Ramasastry explains, certain debt collectors currently take to social media to harass debtors after first posing as, for example, a Facebook friend. Ramasastry describes the current law regarding how debt collectors may operate, and the alterations in the law that will likely be enacted in the near future, in order to accommodate the technological changes that have occurred since the initial debt-collection laws were put in place, long before the advent of social media.

Revenge Porn Returns, with Home Addresses: Why the Site Is Legal and What Legislators Might Do to Fix That

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry discusses the way in which Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) has unintentionally offered a safe harbor to websites on which people’s exes post nude or other intimate photos that were taken during the course of a relationship, and that were intended by the subject of the photo to be forever kept private. Ramasastry notes how adding additional information to the photo, such as a home address, could be a crime, as it aids cyberstalking. In addition, she urges that Congress ought to amend Section 230 in order to prevent unintended negative consequences like these.

Instagram’s Terms of Service Revision: Why It Strained the Bounds of Fair Contracting

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the photo-sharing site Instagram’s controversial change to its Terms of Service (ToS), which has had some users up in arms—mainly because of a term that would allow Instagram to share a user’s photos with Facebook (which owns Instagram) and marketing affiliates for the purpose of creating paid advertisements, with the revenues going to Instagram, and not the photo owner. Due to the controversy, Instagram has a new ToS, but Ramasastry contends that the new ToS is also problematic for its own reasons.

Senator Franken Wants Us to Know When Our Apps Are Tracking Us: Why This Is a Sensible Thing for Congress to Require

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on Senator Al Franken’s proposed legislation that would regulate cyberstalking and geolocation apps—some of which are installed in a given device without notice of their presence being provided to the user. As Ramasastry explains, some of the chief concerns in this area of law include the possible stalking of domestic violence victims, and the safety of children. As Ramasastry explains, this topic not only sparked Franken’s interest, but also is of interest to the FTC, and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Facebook’s Mandatory Couples Pages: The Site’s Creating Them May Be Legal, But Is It Wise?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the new couples pages feature on Facebook, which aggregates a Facebook user’s information with that of his or her self-designated significant other. Ramasastry notes that the feature has been controversial, and explains why some users have been upset by it. She notes, too, that Facebook is entering a privacy gray area with the couples pages feature, under which Facebook relies on its privacy policies, but users feel they have lost control. Moreover, Ramasastry suggests that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which previously criticized Facebook’s Timeline feature, may want to scrutinize Facebook’s couples pages feature as well. Finally, Ramasastry questions whether Facebook’s couples pages are permissible under Facebook’s recent settlement with the FTC.

The Right to Be Untagged: As Facebook Disables Facial Recognition for EU Consumers, U.S. Consumers Are Left Wondering What’s Next for Them

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on regulatory responses in the EU and the U.S. regarding Facebook’s facial-recognition tool, which suggests the identities of registered Facebook users for possible tagging by other users in uploaded photos. As Ramasastry explains, the tool has sparked concern by EU regulators due to privacy worries, and even in the U.S., Facebook has voluntarily—but perhaps temporarily—suspended the tool. Ramasastry notes some reasons why Facebook users may have concerns about the tool, including its accompanying archive of tagged photos, which could in theory be used for law-enforcement, intelligence, or other purposes that users never authorized. In the EU, Facebook has agreed to soon stop using the tool, and to delete related data. But what will happen with the tool and the resulting database, here in the U.S.? With complaints from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a leading NGO, and a complaint filed with the FTC, the facial- recognition tool is now in hot water in the U.S. as well as the EU.

Does Match.com Have To Make Sure Its Member Profiles are Real and Accurate? Why A Federal Judge Correctly Ruled No

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a federal-court class-action lawsuit against Match.com that had been brought by disgruntled daters who alleged that Match.com engaged in deceptive trade practices, and breached its contract with its users. In particular, users have complained that after they joined the site, they found that it contained numerous profiles that were inactive, and numerous others that were merely spam. After analyzing the site's Terms of Service (ToS), however, Ramasastry concludes, as the court did, that Match.com did not violate its ToS, nor did it engage in deceptive trade practices. Ramasastry therefore warns Internet users who seek to join pay sites, to first look very carefully at what the ToS do—and do not—actually promise, before signing up. Finally, Ramasastry notes some of the guidelines for dating online that the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has developed.

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.

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.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb tea... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Befo... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has w... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of L... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice, and Fox Family Pavi... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record... more

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of... more

Ronald D. Rotunda
Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately prior... more