Analysis and Commentary on Consumer Law

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.

Iowa Passes an “Ag-gag” Law: The Power and Limits of Free Speech

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on “ag-gag” laws, which prohibit people from gaining entry into, or employment in, an agricultural production facility, including an animal agriculture facility, under false pretenses. Colb notes that Iowa recently passed such a law, and that North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas also have such laws. Colb argues that the laws are aimed at concealing the true facts about how animals are treated in such facilities, because of the fear that if consumers knew the truth of the cruelty that is perpetrated there, they might change their eating habits. Supporters of that view see those who enter these facilities knowing they will convey information about them to the outside world as undercover reporters and whistleblowers, while the animal industries see them merely as trespassers. Colb details ways in which consumers are misled or misinformed about animal agriculture, suggesting that there is a need for undercover reportage so that the truth can be known. For instance, she explains how milk production entails slaughter, contrary to popular opinion, and not just on factory farms. Colb questions, though, whether consumers really want to know a truth that could complicate their lives with new ethical questions leading to possible dietary changes, and whether if consumers do learn that truth, they will really change their behavior. Colb also examines why humans may not feel empathy for animals, citing the coping strategies that often accompany humans’ acceptance of systematic violence, including violence toward other humans.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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 the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in con... 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

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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