Many thanks to the International Law Office (ILO) for publishing a derivative of our Legal Bytes article. You can download and read a personal copy of the ILO posting FTC Targets Ads That Target Kids, or you can read the original Legal Bytes blog posting at "Mom, is it OK for them to follow me?" FTC Targets Ads That Target Kids.
Many of us remember when kids were actually worried about being caught misbehaving. Back in those days, parent’s concern over children’s behavior dealt with whether the kids were ‘fresh’ or ‘mischievous’ or talked too much in school. I was perennially the subject of “he would do so much better in class if he just stopped horsing around and paid attention.” Dear Mrs. Frohman, Mrs. Handel, Mrs. Flynn and Mrs. Bernstein – thanks! It took me several decades, but I finally got the message. Today, however, when we hear the terms children and behavior – well, at least according to the FTC, it ain’t the children that are misbehaving.
In a proposed amendment to rules that have been in effect since 2000, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) is proposing amendments to COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act”) that “would require parental notification and consent prior to the collection of persistent identifiers where they are used for purposes such as amassing data on a child's online activities or behaviorally targeting advertising to the child." In describing the proposed changes (the proposed Amendment runs 122 pages long), the FTC notes that these new rules would apply to any identifying or tracking technology (cookies) that would link a child’s browsing behavior across multiple web pages and services – ostensibly including advertising networks and metric/measurement/analytical service providers who routinely have access to such information.
Although a ‘safe harbor’ for compliance with self-regulatory programs is included within the FTC’s proposal, it did suggest that these programs (and individual company compliance with these programs) be more closely monitored and supervised – including mandatory audits every 18 months and reports detailing actions taken by the self-regulatory body against the companies that do not comply. Clearly, one of the FTC’s objectives is to not only ensure a mandatory review of compliance, even for those companies that have not been subject to proceedings, but also to create a record-keeping and reporting system that gives the FTC the ability to obtain detailed information about the proceedings and the compliance efforts of individual companies.
Comments, which are due by November 28, 2011, may be filed with the FTC using it’s COPPA Rule Review Form. If you are interested, concerned, want your voice heard, or otherwise need to be guided by experienced counsel in this area, please feel free to contact me, Joseph I. Rosenbaum, or the Reed Smith lawyer with whom you regularly work. We would be happy to help!
Facebook is facing another class-action, this time in Federal Court in Illinois, charging it used minors in its advertising. Although I haven't done a search, there are at least two or three others – federal actions in California and New York and at least one state lawsuit filed in Southern California. In each of these cases, the allegations are essentially the same. Facebook takes user names, pictures and preferences, using the "Like" buttons, and then mashes or moshes (that word is the pits) them with paid sponsorship and advertising to target specific ads – sometimes referred to as "enhanced" or "premium" advertisements. The user's name or likeness can be "pushed" to their Facebook friends – presumably people who the user has specifically permitted to be able to see such information; and also presumably by becoming a "friend," they, in turn, have manifested a desire or interest to know what the individual is doing, what she or he likes, opinions, where they are and what they are doing.
Aside from issues of free speech, voluntary opt-in and parent consent, especially where the individual is a minor and their name, image or likeness is used in an "ad" (and it's not clear or settled that these are all "advertisements"), a question arises as to whether section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act insulates Facebook from liability as a neutral communications platform that doesn't control what each individual does or offers – so long as they act in accordance with Facebook's terms and conditions. Some commentators point out, however, that in 2007, a Federal Appeals Court in California (9th Circuit Court of Appeals) held that Roommates.com was not immune when their users posted ads that were illegal under the Fair Housing Act (See, Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com LLC [PDF]. That said, in the Roommates case, the ads were, to some extent, structured, and categories of content and information for the ads encouraged, if not solicited, populating the database of advertising for roommates using the website. Facebook may well argue that simply providing a "Like" button and making it available for use, is no different from a brand owner making a gadget or widget icon available should a user want to place it on their site. The "platform" – in this case Facebook – has no part in the user's decision, nor is it offering to customize the user's "Like" decision in any way that could be construed as editing or adding new content as a publisher.
One thing is very clear. Nothing is clear. Stay tuned!
This post was written by Judith L. Harris, with assistance from Reed Smith Summer Interns James Duchesne and Linda Shim.
A new trend is quickly taking hold. In recent months, a sizeable number of class action lawsuits have been filed involving unsolicited text messages. A messaging system called "Short Message Service," better known as "SMS", allows individuals to receive text messages on mobile phones. Consumers unhappy with bulk, unsolicited SMS marketing messages are filing suit under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act 47 U.S.C. § 227 ("TCPA") in alarming numbers. You can read a summary of the TCPA Rules [PDF], but to recap for these purposes, the TCPA prohibits any call from an automatic telephone dialing system to any mobile telephone service or any service for which the called party is charged. Since most mobile phone service plans charge on a message received/sent basis, the fact that SMS is subject to the TCPA's prohibitions (just like land line phone calls), has caught many by surprise - including many of the most sophisticated operators in the mobile marketing space.
Lusskin v. Google [PDF] is one of the latest of these cases to be filed (Federal Court in California) and takes aim at Disco, launched by Google just this past March. In Lusskin, the plaintiffs are claiming that the Disco app gives Google the ability to "harvest all phone numbers" added by consumers so that Google "can independently send its own text message advertisements" promoting the Disco application. Individuals can use Disco to input names and mobile phone numbers (into groups); however, no permission or consent is required from someone whose name and number are added! When the group starts, Disco sends a message to members welcoming them, instructing them how the service works and how they can opt out. Once the groups are formed, messages can be sent from a single source, for a single charge, to all group members. Each member of the group receives the message and each can respond and, you guessed it, each response is sent to every other group member – an SMS mobile "chat room."
Unbeknownst to Mr. Lusskin, he was added to one of these Disco groups and his mobile phone notified him of a text message from an unfamiliar number – the "welcome" message from Disco. Unfortunately, the "chat room" quickly turned into an angry and confused barrage of messages from the other unsuspecting group members responding to Disco's first, unsolicited message. Messages poured in so rapidly and voluminously that Mr. Lusskin claims he was unable to use his mobile phone until the alleged 105+ SMS messages had all been received. Mr. Lusskin has filed as a class action, seeking relief for all persons who received the unsolicited initial welcoming text message from the Disco service. Mr. Lusskin also wants to include, as plaintiffs in the action, anyone who opted-out of the Disco service within 24 hours of receiving an unsolicited welcoming text message, or who was a member of a Disco group that was closed within 24 hours of its creation.
With a potential penalty of $500 in damages for each TCPA violation - each unsolicited message (and triple that number if a plaintiff can show the violation was willful or knowing) – no wonder consumers are seeking to use the TCPA to get some attention, or rather seeking to avoid getting unsolicited attention.
Are you in the mobile marketing arena? Need to understand the rules and regulations surrounding the medium? If you are an advertiser, marketer or sponsor involved in promotions, the message (content), we can help you keep abreast of Lusskin and its brethren as they seek to carve out a place under TCPA regulation. If you need help, contact Judith L. Harris, or me, Joe Rosenbaum, or any of the Reed Smith attorneys with whom you regularly work.
Earlier today, an Interagency Working Group released a report on the Federal Trade Commission's website making sweeping recommendations relating to the marketing of food to children. The report, entitled "Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts Request for Comments," is the result of the U.S. Congress' request that standards for the marketing of food products to children under the age of 18 be subject to review and recommendation by an interagency task force comprised of the FTC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture.
The recommendations in the Principals bifurcate foods into two categories, for determinations as to the appropriate marketing approaches and restrictions: (a) foods that are deemed to make a "meaningful contribution to a healthful diet"; and (b) foods that, given their nutritional content, should have their advertising limited.
While the proposed recommendations are referred to as "voluntary," this not only flies in the face of the inevitable pressure on advertising practices in the food and beverage industry, but—if previous government agency regulatory recommendations, guidelines or proposals are a precedent—these can also quickly become de facto standards that the regulators themselves use in enforcing "industry standards." As with so many areas currently under scrutiny by the regulators both in the United States and around the world, deference to self-regulation is a welcome trend; but if it is mere lip service, and if industries are not given a meaningful opportunity to design both self-regulatory standards, and appropriate and meaningful enforcement mechanisms, it simply ends up creating further adversarial tensions and needless contention between industry and regulators – none of which is ultimately good for consumers in terms of cost or benefit.
The Interagency Working Group has provided a very short window for public comment: comments are due by June 13, 2011, although with enough outcry, given the scope and breadth of the Principles, they might be persuaded to extend the deadline. That said, if your company is in the food and beverage industry and will be affected by any government or self-regulatory pronouncements in this arena, now is the time to engage in the dialogue – in your own right and through the various industry associations that may be submitting comments. Of course, if you need help and guidance, the Advertising Technology & Media law practice at Reed Smith has lawyers ready to counsel, assist and represent you.
This post was written by Christopher Hackford.
After an extensive year-long review, on March 16, 2010, the Committee of Advertising Practice in the United Kingdom announced the launch of new Advertising Codes for both broadcast and non-broadcast media, covering television standards, television scheduling, radio and text services.
Much remains nearly the same, but there are some notable new rules, including rules intended to offer greater protection for children, rules to prevent exaggerated environmental claims, and a new section dedicated to lotteries and promotions.
That said, here are two examples of some rules that have actually been relaxed. One: charities are now allowed to make comparisons with each other (competitive advertising fighting for your British Pound Sterling). Two: advertisers in the UK are now permitted to advertise condoms on television before 10:00 pm on television. Some of this may reflect the increasing contention among advertisers for share of wallet from consumers.
The new Codes did not deal with some contentious areas of British advertising, but to find out more, you will either have to plod through the Advertising Code yourself, or you could read the Reed Smith Advertising Technology & Media Alert, New Advertising Codes Launched, written by our ATM colleagues in the UK.
So, if you need help understanding the new Advertising Codes, or you want to hear from the authors of the alert and experts in this area, feel free to contact Marina Palomba, Christopher Hackford or Huw Morris directly. Of course, you can always contact me, Joe Rosenbaum, or the Reed Smith attorney with whom you regularly work.
The Children’s Advertising Review Unit recently held that screening for age to avoid collecting personal information from children under 13 was not enough. In Bandai America (the website is Bandai’s Wireless.com site), CARU found that although Bandai’s website had a screening mechanism that asked for a date of birth, there was no tracking once a child put in a birth date. Thus, anyone under 13 could come back and enter a different (inaccurate) date of birth to get by the screen. CARU’s COPPA compliance guidelines require that not only must interactive sites have an age screening mechanism, but there also must be some reasonably effective means of tracking so children can’t get around the screening process. Forewarned is forearmed.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dismissed a lawsuit filed by parents against manufacturers and importers of alcoholic beverages and the Beer Institute, that alleged advertising is responsible for the illegal purchase of alcoholic beverages by minor children. Although the suit had numerous technical flaws, the parents were suing to recover money their minor children spent on alcoholic beverages, and to enjoin advertising. While the first claim was economic, the second alleged injury to their “parental rights.” Although the court dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction, they cite prior decisions that clearly state there appears to be no legal authority to support the notion that expression of ideas by advertisers interferes with a parent’s right to make decisions regarding their children’s well-being or upbringing. To restrict advertising would be an inappropriate restriction on the advertisers’ rights to freedom of speech and expression.
The plaintiffs acknowledged that laws designed to protect against underage consumption of alcohol—laws which prohibit both the sale to and purchase of by a minor—lose their connection to the advertisers, since intervening criminal acts of third-party sellers and third-party underage purchasers are the direct cause of the illegal activity, not advertising. The court stated what many of us consider to be all too obvious: one must trace the injury or violation to actions of the defendant, not something that results from actions and activities of parties who aren’t even in court (i.e., merchants who sold the alcohol and minors who purchased it).
Perhaps the parents should bring an action against the merchants who sold the alcoholic beverages or even against their own children to recover money the children spent (“converted”) in their violation of laws prohibiting underage purchase of alcohol. The bottom line for this court is that if the First Amendment right to commercial speech (advertising) is to be outlawed, it is for the lawmakers or a constitutional amendment to do so, not the courts.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Bay, renowned film director with cinematic blockbusters such as “The Rock,” “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” to his credit, is quoted as saying, “I make world-class images. Why not put those images into a game?” Indeed! The new investor and co-chairman of Digital Domain, the effects studio evolving into a production studio, is making a bet on convergence—the application of digital technology to reduce costs and expand the horizons of entertainment and new media.
Remember watching those old cowboy movies and pretending you were the new sheriff in town? Did you secretly imagine you wielded an elegant light saber and might save the Galaxy with Luke Skywalker? How many times did you imagine yourself as Legolas, drawing an imaginary bow in the air to shoot an arrow and save Middle Earth?
But even in Middle Earth—where presumably there were no computers—there are digital effects. You trivia buffs will enjoy knowing that Orlando Bloom’s eyes are really brown. But as Legolas in Lord of the Rings, his eyes are blue, thanks to CGI technology. For example, watch Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and right outside the Black Gates, in a close-up, you can see his eyes are CGI blue. However, in a scene right after that, Gandalf is in the foreground and Legolas is in the near background—and Legolas’ eyes are clearly brown.
We love to be entertained, but we also love to play—play is the basis of leisure time, enjoyment, learning, and game and number theory. Play makes us active participants with interactive relationships and activities that are make-believe—in much the same way that motion pictures can move us with stunning visual sequences and transport us to places we might never see or even imagine in real life.
The computer game market represents a new—or rather a different—frontier. New motion pictures have spawned merchandising for decades—dolls, action figures, and stuffed animals, from Tarzan and Mickey Mouse to Spider-Man and G.I. Joe. In fact, product placements in motion pictures, which have gone mostly unregulated in the United States, have been used for years by advertisers to promote both reality in the movies and brand awareness to consumers. See the logo on an airplane taking off—someone paid for that. Picking up a soft drink can at the stadium with a familiar brand—someone paid for that. Watch Jack Bauer drive away or make a phone call—recognize that car or that mobile phone—someone paid for that. Do you really think Microsoft paid an estimated $6 billion for Internet advertising company aQuantive, because it does not understand the importance of convergence? Wonder why Apple Computer changed its name to “Apple”? Go to China or India or Brazil—which has more brand and name recognition, a MAC or the iPod? Which creates more buzz, the iPhone or a new operating system code named “Leopard”?
Whether you are arriving at the flash point starting as a consumer-driven technology company manufacturing the Xbox 306; a motion picture studio that has spawned PlayStation or ImageWorks; an entertainment giant acquiring Xfire and Harmonix; or an automotive company like BMW that has transformed short films into some of the most watched advertisements on the Internet, directed by world-famous directors; or creating an automobile showcase—convergence is reality.
General Motors has created Motorati Island, 96 virtual acres that GM bought in Second Life, a popular virtual world, which, for now, will offer the Pontiac Solstice GXP in any—yes, we mean any—color scheme you like. Toyota has already sold more than 200 virtual automobiles through its virtual dealership; and while none of these vehicles comes with any warranty or service contract at all, I am assured that these vehicles will never need repair (at least until some hacker removes my virtual electronic ignition coil).
Yes, folks, advertisers have begun to take advantage of the fact that people like us may fast-forward through the television commercials, but we willingly and gleefully stare at the television (aka monitor) for hours playing World of Warcraft or Guitar Hero. Let’s include a poster or billboard, a store front. What about an actual video playing on that virtual Times Square jumbotron. Wait, if Harold and Kumar can go to White Castle, why can’t I play MTV: Music Television Spring Break Volleyball…head for the beach kiddies. Technology is opening doors to worlds we have yet to know. Interactive gaming can be one person—I drive a virtual car, pretend to be 007 saving the world from the bad guys, or screaming Wii as I hit the tennis ball back to my virtual opponent. Or it can be massively multi-player, exploiting the World Wide Web and involving teams and participants from around the world.
But in the world of technology, I may be able to see your IP address and know you are in Finland or Argentina or Macedonia or on the West Coast of the United States. If I know that, I can tailor the images you see on your monitor to the language or culture I think may be familiar to you—even if we are playing the same game at the same time. I can alter the background, the signs, the advertisements and, pardon the pun, virtually anything that doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the game. Perhaps I can develop profiles—the so-called “dossier” effect of cumulative information that is never forgotten in some computer file—so that I develop a better understanding of your preferences, for games, for products and for advertisements. After all, real products and images create more realistic entertainment. This is rocket science; technology has given us a brave new world to either use and enjoy or abuse and regret.
Oh, and legal issues abound in this convergent and exciting new world. Copyright law—a legal principle owing its origins to moveable type, printing presses and, more recently, photocopying machines—is not only being challenged, but is also undergoing radical change. Advertising to children is becoming a major issue as advertisers use entertainment and gaming to advertise and promote the sale of goods and services. What if your game-created alter ego is given specific powers in your virtual world (or perhaps is able to move up to the next level or even win) by using your product in a game. What if the game (remember the hugely successful “Grand Theft Auto” games) encourages behavior—even if only in play—that is considered socially unacceptable or even deviant.
The FTC is expected to release a Report on how violence is being used to market to children—in movies, music and video games. Some insiders fear the FTC will suggest the entertainment industry has violated or outgrown its voluntary standards—can you say “regulation.” Both the FTC and the FCC have targeted children’s advertising, programming and products. Want to know more? Contact John P. Feldman in our Washington, D.C. office; me or Douglas J. Wood in our New York office; or Stephen Edwards, Michael Skrein or Carolyn Pepper in our London office. Please also visit our www.KidAdLaw.com web pages. If you market or advertise to children or if you are a company that carries advertising which is or could be targeted to children, why would you look anywhere else for legal counsel.
This is a portion of testimony before Congress. Think you know who said this?
“In the future, the Web will seem like it’s everywhere, not just on our desktop or mobile device. As LCD technology becomes cheaper, walls of rooms, and even walls of buildings, will become display surfaces for information from the Web. Much of the information that we receive today through a specialized application such as a database or a spreadsheet will come directly from the Web. Pervasive and ubiquitous web applications hold much opportunity for innovation and social enrichment. They also pose significant public policy challenges. Nearly all of the information displayed is speech but is being done in public, possibly in a manner accessible to children. Some of this information is bound to be personal, raising privacy questions. Finally, inasmuch as this new ubiquitous face of the Web is public, it will shape the nature of the public spaces we work, shop, do politics, and socialize in… Progress in the evolution of the Web to date has been quite gratifying to me. But the Web is by no means finished.
“The Web, and everything which happens on it, rest on two things: technological protocols, and social conventions. The technological protocols, like HTTP and HTML, determine how computers interact. Social conventions, such as the incentive to make links to valuable resources, or the rules of engagement in a social networking web site, are about how people like to, and are allowed to, interact. As the Web passes through its first decade of widespread use, we still know surprisingly little about these complex technical and social mechanisms. We have only scratched the surface of what could be realized with deeper scientific investigation into its design, operation and impact on society. Robust technical design, innovative business decisions, and sound public policy judgment all require that we are aware of the complex interactions between technology and society.
“So how do we plan for a better future, better for society? We ensure that both technological protocols and social conventions respect basic values. That the Web remains a universal platform: independent of any specific hardware device, software platform, language, culture, or disability. That the Web does not become controlled by a single company—or a single country. By adherence to these principles we can ensure that Web technology, like the Internet, continues to serve as a foundation for bigger things to come.”
Advertising targeted at children and minors has become the focus of legislators and watchdogs throughout the world. In the United States, the Mobile Marketing Association (“MMA”) released stricter industry guidelines directed to wireless carriers, aggregators and content providers, to increase protection of children in marketing practices. In the U.K., Ofcom (the regulatory authority) has required an end to “junk-food” advertising to children under 16. The Greek Ministry for Education has established a mobile phone ban for teachers and pupils at school that also regulates how students may carry cell phones onto school premises.
The issue has become a topic of intense debate in Italy and on Nov. 15, 2006, the local Communications Regulatory Authority (“Agcom”) required communication providers offering audiovisual and multimedia services available through mobile devices, to include technical means to prevent minors from accessing harmful content. Services with adult-oriented content must provide a control mode—allowing parents to block access. Providers should provide notice about these controls and users must confirm, in writing, receipt of the notices. A few days later, the same Agcom issued additional rulings to protect minors in the context of entertainment programming, requiring television and radio broadcasters to ensure that content directed at—or likely to attract—children complies with requirements as to language and behavior, and avoids unjustified violence, vulgarity, bad language and sexual innuendo.
Almost at the same time, the National Journalists’ Association released a new version of its rules (the so-called Carta di Treviso) with a specific section (no. 7) dedicated to protection of minors. The rules require that, with few exceptions, journalists refrain from publishing personal or identifiable data of minors; these rules have been approved by the local Privacy Commissioner as an ethical self-regulatory code. This updated version of the ethical rules now applies to on-line, multimedia and any kind of journalistic communication—even bloggers will have to take into account the Carta’s prescriptions.
Food advertising to children is being targeted by the authorities in Italy. For example, a company producing a lollipop popular among young consumers, ran into trouble in a recent television advertising campaign. The commercial depicted three young girls in a bedroom sucking lollipops. The narrative comments “New XX lollipop with fruit cream, really excellent!” One of the girls picks up her skates and says, “Well now we’ll have to do some exercise.” The other girls reply “Exercise? Why? XX contains 0% fat! Didn’t you know?” The commercial closes with the statement “XX: new ultra-juicy flavours and zero percent fat.”
The complaint filed with the Italian Authority for Market and Fair Competition argued the advertisement was targeted at children and the lollipop was presented as a food product that didn’t increase weight because it didn’t contain fat—thus exercise wasn’t needed, suggesting a “dietetic” effect for children and specifically young girls concerned about their weight. In its defense, the company argued the lollipop did not, in fact, contain any fat, and might actually be considered a dietetic product.
The Authority held that the ads were likely to reach an audience of children, considering the time the commercials were aired; and that stating there was no fat in the lollipop was irrelevant because it contained sugar, and the ads suggested exercise was unnecessary. Consequently, the commercial resulted in a misleading message and a fine was imposed.
In Italy, as elsewhere, the promotional message, as well as the presentation, in advertising directed to children requires a high level of attention—even more so with regard to food products, given the particular attention the obesity problem has raised among regulators.
Based on a complaint that Xanga knew it was collecting (and sharing) personal information from children under the age of 13 (they asked for and were given the birth dates from registrants), the FTC reached a settlement agreement in which Xanga.com agreed to pay a civil penalty of $1 million. The complaint also alleged that Xanga didn’t notify children’s parents, nor did they give parents access to or control over their children’s information.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) mandates that commercial web sites give parents notice and get consent before collecting personal information from children they know to be younger than 13 years old. The order which is part of the settlement with the FTC forces Xanga to erase any personal information collected and stored that violates the Act. Xanga also will have to put up hypertext links for the next five years to FTC-designated consumer educational materials.
Social networking has been in the news recently for many reasons. Recently, Facebook was faced with controversy when it started serving automated alerts about users’ friends and classmates. Facebook has less than 10 million users, compared with MySpace—which is now owned by News Corp.—which has in excess of 100 million users.
Charles Ford has sued Verisign, Jamster!, Jamba! (the European version of Jamster!), T-Mobile USA, AT&T Wireless, and Cingular, hoping to turn his lawsuit into a worldwide class action. The problem: his daughter responded to a TV ad promising her a free ring tone. Although she claims never to have downloaded any songs the company sent her, Ford was billed $1.99, plus another 5 cents for each text message she received and read over her monthly limit—to the tune of $80. Ford is alleging fraud, negligent misrepresentation, false advertising, and unfair competition, and is claiming that by targeting children who often don’t understand, they are using this as a means to keep sending text messages which are read—costing consumers money. Stay tuned.
Just last month (June was a busy month), Utah and Michigan laws came into force which prohibit sending commercial e-mail to children for products a minor can’t legally own there—but the children must be signed up in the newly created Child Protection registries to be covered by the protection. That means not just gambling or alcohol, but tobacco, prescription drugs and a host of other items which children are not permitted to own in those states. Michigan and Utah will both impose fines for violations , and in Utah, sending a message or a web link could also land you in jail for up to three years. And you thought CAN-SPAM was tough—in both states, the penalties apply even if a parent requested the e-mail. Although likely to be challenged, at this point, if you are using e-mail or web-based links to market in these states, the time to worry about doing a merge-purge against the registries before you e-mail is now.
As we mentioned in last month’s issue, sweepstakes, contests and promotions are primarily regulated by state law, although federal statutes and regulations must be considered. Jurisdiction and eligibility across borders, language, currency restrictions, licensing and export of technology, liability, billing and payment, whether a deposit to play might be construed an account for banking purposes, or whether gathering non-public, personally identifiable information about contestants may have privacy implications, are just a few of the issues that transcend the “gaming” aspects of any legal analysis.
On the U.S. federal level, although the FTC can take regulatory action and sue advertisers for deceptive or unfair acts and practices, it relies heavily on the states to regulate the industry. The FTC has, however, promulgated rules that do have significant impact on promotions. For example, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) was enacted to protect children from marketers who collect or use personal information obtained online from under-age children without parental permission, and authorized the FTC to develop a rule that requires “verifiable parental consent.” Because contests are extremely popular for Internet marketing, online advertisers must be cognizant of COPPA if a portion of their online traffic is, or is likely to be, children under the age of 13.
To illustrate the maze of legal and regulatory issues, let’s use an example: Joe’s Airline, Widget and Screen Door Company wants to conduct a contest on the Internet in which participants are charged $2 to play successive rounds of chess, with prizes at various levels and a grand prize of a million dollars. Our promotion is really a unilateral offer to enter into a contract, subject to terms and conditions (e.g., rules) agreed upon through some manifestation of acceptance. Participants accept the offer by performing a required act—registering, paying, selecting an “I ACCEPT” link—and a binding contract is formed. Point number 1: if Joe fails to adequately disclose the rules upon which the offer is made, the promotion could be construed as an illegal lottery, rather than a contest. Point number 2: Joe better get the rules right and disclose them properly because there are cases which indicate once a participant enters (“accepts”), Joe cannot change the rules (i.e., unilaterally amend the contract). Something to think about: Could each chess game be viewed as a new contest, permitting amendments prospectively?
In general, to qualify as a contest, skill, and not chance, must determine the outcome, and chance may not determine the winner or prize amount. Most, but not all, state laws distinguish games of skill from games of chance, although states do not use a uniform standard to differentiate between the two. While some states prohibit requiring consideration to engage in a promotion where a prize is awarded, most states do not prohibit the payment of money if the promotion is a bona fide contest of skill. What constitutes skill? Good question. The decision is often a question of fact, and when the Internet is involved, evidence can be complex and technology-based, straining judges and juries. Two criminal courts in New York judging the legality of a shell game and a card game reached opposite conclusions.
A number of states have disclosure statutes which apply. Some (e.g., California) arguably apply to skill-based contests, while others do not. Many prize notification statutes were not intended to apply to skill contests, but are worded broadly to include any promotion requiring an entry fee or a purchase. Joe should also be aware that some state gambling laws do not limit their application to games of chance, but focus on whether players are asked to risk or wager something of value. In those states, a skill-based contest that involves betting or offers prizes dependent on the number of entries or the amount of entry fees should be reviewed carefully against state gambling laws. Remember the three elements that constitute an illegal lottery? A prize, consideration and chance. By including an equal and alternate means of entry in which there is “no purchase necessary” to enter or win, and by avoiding a payment (i.e., consideration), Joe can introduce the element of chance in the determination of the winner and not be in violation of federal or state law.
Marketing and promotional experts already know that with rare exceptions (e.g., the government), lotteries are illegal. An illegal lottery is a game or contest in which the outcome is determined by chance, the entry requires some form of consideration, and the winner is awarded a prize. Over the years, these three elements have been the subject of scrutiny, regulatory opinion and judicial decision. Although interpretive rules are not cast in concrete, a prize can be nominal in value; consideration can take the form of visiting a store or filling out a lengthy customer survey; and, if chance plays a material factor in determining the outcome, no amount of skill in any of the other elements of the promotion will save the day.
Marketing and promotional experts use “no purchase necessary” or “free alternate means of entry” as tools to avoid consideration—in general, promotions with a freely available alternate means to enter may be based on chance and may have a prize. Some promotions involve skill—eliminating chance. Shooting a hole in one at golf or solving a mathematical puzzle are examples of skill-based contests. Of course, the skill must be bona fide—guessing the number of beans in a jar is not a real skill, no matter how good one becomes at guessing.
Against this backdrop, advertisers, eager to get their message in front of consumers, are finding life increasingly difficult. Have you noticed increased advertising in movie theatres, outdoor signage or on uniforms of your favorite sports figures? Distribution technology and storage and recording media have given us the ability to fast-forward or avoid viewing messages that previously required you to physically leave the room or change the channel! Hmmm…so people are spending more time on the Internet—browsing, surfing—how about advertising there?
Well things seemed to be looking up for advertisers—cookies, pop-up ads, banners, above and below the fold advertising, mass commercial e-mail. Seemed like technology was coming to the rescue. But, enter their legal and technical counterparts—cookie disablers, pop-up blockers, spy-ware and ad-ware detection programs, SPAM and other filters, coupled with legislation and regulation over intrusive technologies or programs that invade privacy or transmit information without consent. Getting the message across is still getting tougher.
One approach is the increased use of “product placement”—insertion of branded products into actual programming “content.” Branded products become part of the action—someone is drinking a beverage, driving a car, using a computer—all branded. One of the most interesting developments in the world of product place ment is taking place in interactive gaming. Interactive games require players to sit, often for hours, staring at a screen, paying close attention to the game. Background, backdrop, even music, contribute to making games realistic and become music to the ears of advertisers targeting a captive audience.
Can interactive, Internet-based games require a participant to pay to enter and participate—online “pay-to-play” games—and provide the winner cash or prizes? Here’s how such a game is typically structured: the participant downloads licensed programming for installation on his or her computer—the platform from which instructions and controls are transmitted. When combined with instructions and controls from team members or opposing players, the programming allows the game to be played. To enhance the gaming experience (and also to bolster the argument these are predominantly skill-based, not based on chance) many gaming platforms have sophisticated mechanisms to rate players and provide “matches” of comparable skill. Assuming games are skill-based, many (but not all) jurisdictions permit the payment of cash to play and the award of a prize. In some jurisdictions (but not all), the prize can even be derived from the number of players and the amounts paid by the participants. Check with Reed Smith before making any assumptions.
Regulation of Internet contests in the United States falls into four broad legal categories: (a) regulation of sweepstakes, contests and prizes; (b) regulation of unfair and deceptive trade practices; (c) regulation of gambling; and (d) consumer protection. We will turn to a more comprehensive legal review in next month’s issue, but we will tell you that if your game attracts children, you had better ensure there are mechanisms enabling you to comply with special regulations that apply. These are not limited to issues involving the age of majority and the ability of participants to legally enter into binding contracts (e.g., Alabama and Nebraska = 19; Mississippi and Puerto Rico = 21). Compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA,” not to be confused with COPA or Copacabana—anyone still reading?), considerations of parental consent, propriety of content and a host of other regulations and legal considerations, come to mind.
Stay tuned for next month’s issue to find out more about these legal issues.
A federal Judge in New York State has altered the conditions that apply to the release program of a convicted child sex offender, restricting the individual’s access to the Internet. The judge ruled the use of the Internet, to find and lure victims, was such an integral part of the man’s crimes, that a ban on using the Internet is appropriate—even though his supervised work release job is computer programming. When this issue has previously been presented to a federal court in New York, Internet restrictions have been overturned. Here the judge distinguished those cases by noting that in this instance the offender had used the Internet to search for and attract new victims. Technology also played a role in this decision. Because of software incompatibilities, probation officials couldn’t monitor the individual at work. Because the employer develops software for cellular telephones, the employer was concerned about liability if a third-party is permitted to monitor the computer systems. Will this hold up? It is being appealed. Who knows? It again highlights how pervasive the Internet has become and how difficult questions continue to arise at the intersection of law and technology.