Shahin Rothermel counsels and defends clients on issues involving advertising, marketing, e-commerce, privacy, social media, promotions, sweepstakes, and subscription programs. Shahin regularly represents clients before the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), state attorneys general, district attorneys, the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureaus (NAD), the National Advertising Review Board (NARB), and the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation program (ERSP), in addition to handling complex consumer class actions and competitor disputes in federal and state courts.

Webinar | July 19, 2022 | 2:00 – 3:00 p.m. ET | REGISTER

Although the concept is not new, challenges to “dark patterns” are rising all over the country.  The Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, state attorneys general, and class action plaintiffs increasingly cite this phrase in such complaints as deceptively enrolling consumers

The Federal Trade Commission has requested public input about potential updates to its “Dot.Com Disclosures.” The guidance document was last updated nearly a decade ago and has not addressed much of the new technology that has emerged and the evolution in online advertising. As a result, the agency’s call for comments will allow those interested to provide feedback and suggestions to modernize the guides. Comments are due by August 2, 2022.

The FTC has asked for industry stakeholders’ input on many issues, including:

Continue Reading FTC Asks Online Advertisers to Weigh in on Dark Patterns, Calls for Comment on Its .Com Disclosures Guidance

With several new state laws effective in 2022, it is becoming increasingly difficult for businesses to develop baseline compliance protocols across federal and state automatic renewal laws.

Against this backdrop, federal and state regulators continue to examine the sales practices of companies that sell products and services on an automatically renewing basis; states continue to pass new laws—and strengthen existing laws—that further embolden private plaintiffs and class action lawsuits; and the card brands have imposed increasingly strict requirements on companies offering products and services on a negative option basis.

Here we break down the compliance challenges posed by varying state laws addressing automatic renewal programs (also known as continuous service, continuity, subscription, or negative option programs), how newer card brand rules further stir the pot, and the low-hanging fruit that law enforcement agencies and private plaintiffs are going after for monetary redress and injunctive relief.

Continue Reading State Automatic Renewal Laws Are Starting to Look Like a Patchwork Quilt as the FTC Expands Enforcement of ROSCA

Mastercard recently announced new requirements for merchants using a subscription billing model or negative option model, or both.  The new standards focus on disclosures made to consumers at the point of payment; providing adequate confirmation, notices, and billing receipts; and affording customers an online or electronic cancellation method.  Requirements relating to point of payment disclosures become effective on September 22, 2022.  The other requirements will become effective much sooner, on March 22, 2022.  As always, reconciling card brand requirements with current federal and state legal requirements and law enforcement priorities will take particular care and attention, particularly as laws in California and other states continue to evolve.

The Mastercard updates, like those imposed by other card brands, are intended to reduce complaints and chargebacks from consumers who might not understand they were enrolled in an automatic renewal subscription or negative option program (or who do not understand the billing terms), forgot they enrolled, or have difficulty canceling their subscriptions.

As we summarize below, the new Mastercard requirements apply to merchants using subscription/recurring billing models, including programs that charge a consumer for goods or services on a prearranged schedule (such as streaming video services, membership clubs, and software licenses).  Mastercard included certain additional requirements for negative option programs, where the merchant offers an initial free or discounted trial period of a subscription before automatically enrolling the consumer into the subscription, and the consumer must take some action to cancel before the end of the trial to avoid continuing with the subscription.
Continue Reading New Mastercard Requirements for Subscription and Negative Option Billing Models

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently issued Notices of Penalty Offenses regarding for-profit education, endorsements and testimonials, and money-making opportunities. Prior to this year, the FTC had used its Penalty Offense authority only once in this century. So why the sudden rebirth? In this webinar, Venable attorneys examined the FTC’s authority in this area, the substance of the notices, and their broad implications.

What Is a Penalty Offense?

Under the Penalty Offense authority, the FTC can seek civil penalties against a company or individual if it proves that they had actual knowledge that the FTC had already issued a written decision (after an administrative trial) against another entity that the same conduct was unfair or deceptive in violation of Section 5(m)(1)(b) of the FTC Act. Section 5 enables the FTC to hold the person, partnership, or corporation liable for a civil penalty of up to $43,792 per violation.

In the last few weeks, the FTC has sent out three different notices. The purpose of these notices was to allow the FTC to argue that the recipients had actual knowledge that the FTC had previously ruled certain acts or practices to be unfair or deceptive. Each of the letters specifies that the FTC is not singling out recipients or suggesting recipients are violating the law, which signifies that this is part of an effort to effect broad changes in industry behavior.

Continue Reading FTC’s Notice of Penalty Offenses: What Do They Mean for You?

Just days after the FTC announced that it was resurrecting its Penalty Offense Authority to crack down on for-profit higher education institutions’ false promises about graduates’ career opportunities and earnings prospects, the FTC is invoking this authority to “blanket[] industry with a clear message” about fake online reviews and other deceptive endorsements.

The FTC has revived this dormant authority—the latest example of its creative use of different enforcement tools to obtain monetary relief in the wake of the Supreme Court’s AMG opinion—to hold companies accountable, via significant financial penalties, for unfair and deceptive business practices.

As we previously wrote, former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra had championed the use of this authority and identified for-profit colleges as one possible industry for use of this enforcement tool, while identifying other targets like multilevel marketing programs, gig economy networks, and fake review and influencer fraud.

The FTC now has quickly turned its attention to fake online reviews and other deceptive endorsements, sending a Notice of Penalty Offenses to more than 700 companies, representing an array of leading retailers, consumer product companies, and ad agencies. In doing so, the Commission advises recipients of significant potential civil penalties—up to $43,792 per violation—they could incur if they use endorsements in ways that were found to be illegal in FTC administrative decisions rendered in the 1940s through the 1980s. Under Section 5(m) of the FTC Act, the FTC can obtain penalties against other entities not party to the original proceeding if it can show the entity had actual knowledge that the act had been found to be unfair or deceptive. However, the FTC points out that a company’s inclusion on the list of recipients is not an indication the company has acted illegally.

Continue Reading FTC “Blankets Industry” with Notice of Penalty Offenses Concerning Deceptive Reviews and Endorsements

Background

Advertisers, e-commerce websites, affiliate networks, and publishers each play a large role in the development of the Internet. One reason they have been able to do so is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), which immunizes online interactive services from liability arising from third-party content on their platforms. The CDA does so in twenty-six words:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Through this immunity, the CDA allows online services to host the speech of others, without assuming responsibility for what those users may say or do. No one disputes the premise that Section 230 fosters free expression and the creation of vibrant marketplaces for advertisers and merchants to efficiently and effectively reach consumers. Recently, however, confusion and controversy have arisen as to exactly who and what Section 230 does and does not protect, leading to divisions among court decisions and to calls for legislative “overhaul.” A quick review for merchants, advertisers, agencies, and affiliate networks seems desirable.

Continue Reading An Advertiser’s Guide to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

This week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a proposed settlement with MoviePass to resolve allegations that the company offered an automatically renewing movie subscription program but blocked paid subscribers from using the advertised services, and failed to adequately secure subscribers’ personal data.

The FTC brought the case against MoviePass under the Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act (ROSCA), the federal statute governing online negative option programs. The statute requires sellers to clearly and conspicuously disclose all “material terms of the transaction” and obtain consumers’ express informed consent before charging them for online negative option features.

However, the FTC’s complaint did not take issue with the company’s billing disclosures or consent mechanism. Instead, it asserted that the company’s failure to disclose its deceptive tactics that prevented subscribers from accessing all of the advertised benefits violated ROSCA. In the complaint the FTC alleged that MoviePass, Inc deceptively marketed a MoviePass subscription service that allowed customers to view movies at local theaters for a monthly fee. However, once customers purchased a subscription, MoviePass allegedly used various methods to prevent subscribers from accessing the advertised service. For example, to limit the movies that customers could view, MoviePass allegedly blocked account access by invalidating subscriber passwords under the guise of “suspicious activity or potential fraud.” The FTC asserted that resetting a password was cumbersome and often failed, precluding subscribers from regaining access. Next, the FTC alleged that MoviePass’s operators implemented a ticket verification program that required users to submit pictures of their physical movie ticket stubs for approval through the app within a certain time frame after purchase. Users who failed to submit their ticket stubs would be blocked from viewing future movies and could risk subscription termination. Third, MoviePass allegedly used “trip wires” to block certain groups of subscribers—heavy users who viewed more than three movies per month—from using the service to purchase more tickets. These allegations seem to echo statements from the FTC’s Dark Patterns workshop (we blogged about the workshop here), which discussed ways the FTC should address websites and apps that impair consumers’ autonomy, decision making, and choice.

Continue Reading Lights, Camera, Action! FTC Settlement Signals Novel Use of ROSCA

Spring 2021 Edition: Not a Symposium, but a Virtual Ad Law CLE Bonanza

In a recent series of webinars, members of Venable’s advertising law practice, Reed Freeman, Len Gordon, and Shahin Rothermel, along with some leading industry figures, explored and addressed key issues of concern to companies in the advertising space.

Our attorneys along with Panelists Mary Engle and Laura Brett from BBB National Programs, which administers the National Advertising Division (NAD), the investigative unit of the industry’s system of self-regulation; Lou Mastria from the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA); and Daniel Kaufman from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also answered some audience questions. Below are some highlights from each session.

Session #1: NAD at 50 Years: Regulation and Self-Regulation Over the Past 50 Years

Q: To what extent does the NAD support the work of the FTC in enforcing self-regulation?

A: There has always been a strong relationship between the FTC and the NAD in supporting self-regulation. The FTC has limited resources, and it considers the NAD to be another cop on the street. There are always going to be cases that the FTC will want to pursue, regardless—for example, when it’s important to get money back to consumers. But anytime the NAD can define advertising as misleading and cause an advertiser to modify or discontinue the advertising, it frees up resources for the FTC. To show its support, the FTC prioritizes referrals from the NAD (as opposed to letters from competitors sent directly to the FTC). Similarly, after cases are referred to the FTC, it encourages the advertiser to participate in the NAD process and comply with the NAD’s decisions. So broadly speaking, the FTC really believes in the NAD’s role in encouraging self-regulation and in promoting truthful and non-misleading advertising.

Continue Reading You Asked. We Answered.

On April 29, 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) held a virtual workshop, Bringing Dark Patterns to Light, which discussed the use of “dark patterns,” how they impact consumers, and ways the FTC can combat these methods.

What are dark patterns?

The FTC has defined “dark patterns” as website design features or interfaces which are used to deceive, steer, and manipulate users into behavior that is profitable for the website owner but detrimental to consumers. The panelists agreed that while the term “dark patterns” is useful as a general characterization, it does not adequately convey the term’s meaning from a legal standpoint. According to the panelists, dark patterns are also difficult to identify because many are intentionally designed to be covert.

Although many of the panelists used terms like “manipulative tactics” or “deceptive practices” to describe dark patterns, one of the most comprehensive definitions came from Arunesh Mathur, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University, who described six attributes that make up dark patterns:

Continue Reading FTC Holds Workshop on “Dark Patterns” and Seeks Public Comments