Analysis and Commentary on Consumer Law
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 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 that had been brought by disgruntled daters who alleged that 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 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.

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, 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.

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... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... 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... more

John Dean
John Dean

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

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

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

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

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

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

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

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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