Analysis and Commentary on Technology Law

Should Schools Stalk Students Online to Prevent Cyberbullying?

Justia columnist and University of Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a Southern California school district’s decision to retain a private firm to search the Web and look for public posts, photos, tweets, and other communications made by its students. The district’s stated purpose for retaining the firm is to prevent students from harming others—and, in particular, to stop cyberbullying. But Ramasastry notes that the company that does the monitoring also finds out a lot of other information about students, as well.

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.

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.

Noriega v. The Huffington Post: The End of the Story

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the story of a young Panamanian attorney, Juan Carlos Noriega, whose good name someone stole and used to create a phony blog account at The Huffington Post, which posted a bogus article in his name, the content of which he disagreed with. In addition, The Huffington Post then initially refused to take down the bogus article, or even acknowledge Noriega’s attorney’s letter. The full story also involves the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) sec.230.

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.

The Minnesota Supreme Court Rules for the Defendant in a Suit Alleging Online Defamation

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a case of online defamation, in which a doctor sued a patient’s son for the son’s harsh online reviews regarding the doctor’s care of the patient's father. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that none of the statements in the son’s reviews could be sued upon, either because they were substantially true, because they were not capable of defamatory meaning, or because, in one case, the statement at issue was a statement of pure opinion. Hilden explains why the online-review-writer prevailed here, and notes some other reasons why online reviews may or may not successfully be sued upon.

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.

Football, Sexual Assault, and the Web: The End of the Institutional Cover-ups of Sexual Abuse and Assault

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on the confluence of forces that have made the victories in the fight against child sex abuse possible. Among the key factors, Hamilton argues, are the end of the old boys’ network; survivors who are empowered by the justice system; and revelations that go public far more quickly than they could have prior to the Age of the Internet, when victims and critics of abusers have a strong, far-reaching voice and the ability to recruit allies and supporters. With all these developments, together, sparking public outrage, Hamilton notes that even previously untouchable football institutions can be made accountable—noting, for instance, the crimes toward a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio, by members of that town’s team.

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.

Autonomous Cars and Surgical Robots: A Discussion of Ethical and Legal Responsibility

Justia columnist and attorney David Kemp comments on the legal and ethical issues raised by self-driving cars and surgical robots. He describes current tort (including personal injury) and products liability law, and discusses why these bodies of law may fall short in addressing these technological innovations. Kemp introduces several hypotheticals to illustrate both the legal and ethical issues presented. In addition, he suggests that we should establish dynamic legal and ethical frameworks to keep up with new technologies, and encourages the law—and ethics—to begin to focus not on parties’ individual liability, but rather on the entire system of persons, machines, institutions, and governments that are relevant to a given instance in which something has gone wrong, and injury has occurred.

False Tweets During a Crisis: Why They May Go Unpunished

Justia columnist and attorney David Kemp comments on the now-notorious false tweets regarding Hurricane Sandy sent by Shashank Tripathi (Tripathi is a hedge fund analyst and was previously the campaign manager for Republican Christopher Wight's Congressional campaign; he has since been fired.) While many have excoriated Tripathi's tweets as unethical, Kemp addresses the separate question whether they can be penalized consistent with the First Amendment. Thus, Kemp covers past and current Supreme Court precedents that relate to other instances of false and/or damaging speech.

Is Cellphone Tracking Okay If There’s No Trespass? A Sixth Circuit Panel Says Yes: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns on an interesting set of Fourth Amendment issues, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues to address the question whether law enforcement may constitutionally, without a warrant or probable cause, use global positioning technology to track a suspect’s whereabouts through his cellular phone. Specifically, here in Part Two, Colb considers the two possible ways in which the Supreme Court uses the phrase “reasonable expectations of privacy” in practice in Fourth Amendment cases. In the phrase, Colb notes, “reasonable” may mean “empirically realistic,” but it also may mean “morally justifiable.” Colb gives examples of Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit cases in which the phrase is used in these two different ways. In addition, she examines the exclusionary rule’s role here—noting that the rule, which forbids evidence from being admitted in court if it was obtained unconstitutionally, may in concrete cases seem to simply help out criminals, but at a more abstract theoretical level, protects us all from police misconduct. Colb also predicts that the Supreme Court will need to revisit these issues sooner, rather than later, to ensure that the law is clear.

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 one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Pra... more

David S. Kemp
David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from... 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, at... more