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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 (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.

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

The laws and regulations surrounding subscription-based offers continue to change on a regular basis. Federal and state regulators and private plaintiffs continue to lodge challenges against companies selling products and services on a recurring basis. Moreover, new cases and law enforcement activity offer evolving interpretations on how to comply. Given the substantial developments, companies offering products or services on an automatically renewing basis should take heed.

The primary federal regulator of autorenewal programs, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), remains as active as ever in enforcing the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA), the federal statute governing online negative option programs. The FTC has filed multiple new lawsuits against companies selling products and services on a negative option basis and continues to litigate cases that it has filed.

The district attorneys in the California Automatic Renewal Task Force have also continued to bring actions at a furious pace, demonstrating their clear intention to pick up where the FTC has left off. In fact, the task force recently filed a lawsuit in California state court against Match.com, even though the FTC had already filed a lawsuit against the company. The California district attorneys also announced settlements with Classmates.com, Home Chef, CheckPeople.com, and Care.com, among other companies, and the consent decrees have imposed increasingly stringent requirements on the settling businesses.

Continue Reading Automatic Renewal Programs: Latest Updates

We’re sorry not to be meeting up with you in person, but we hope you can join us for our spring 2021 edition of “Not a Symposium, but a Virtual Ad Law CLE Bonanza.” Combining the experience and thought leadership of one of the nation’s largest advertising law practices with key figures in advertising regulation, these three CLE-packed sessions are designed to educate and innovate. Topics will cover broad trends and anticipated developments, as well as industry-specific hurdles, highlights, and more.

Register today for any or all sessions!

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

Earlier this month, NAD issued its first decision under its Fast-Track SWIFT program, its expedited review track for single well-defined advertising issues. (Here are more details on NAD’s Fast-Track SWIFT program.) In its first substantive Fast-Track SWIFT decision, NAD dealt with a dispute between energy bar manufacturers Kind and Clif and reviewed the claim “A Better Performing Bar–Clif Bar For Sustained Energy,” which appeared as the top AdWords result for internet keyword searches for “Kind Bars” and “energy bars.”

Kind argued that this constitutes an express claim comparing the performance of Clif Energy Bars (either generally or with respect to sustained energy) to the performance of Kind Bars or all energy bars on the market, that must be supported by head-to-head product testing. Clif argued that the claim was not appropriate for SWIFT treatment because the challenged claim was too complex. Specifically, Clif argued that expert testimony and a consumer perception survey were necessary to determine whether the word “better” conveyed a comparative performance message or was merely an expression of the advertiser’s opinion of its product, and that these questions could not be obtained within the shortened SWIFT timeline. NAD concluded that the claims were appropriate for SWIFT treatment because they did not require NAD to evaluate complicated product testing (the advertiser did not argue that it had product testing to support a comparative performance claim), and any legal arguments were limited because the challenge involved a single claim in a single context.

Continue Reading NAD Issues First Decision under Fast-Track SWIFT Program

Last month, the National Advertising Division (NAD) launched its much-anticipated NAD Fast-Track SWIFT process (“Single Well-defined Issue Fast Track”). As we blogged previously, the Fast-Track SWIFT program reflects NAD’s plans to resolve advertising disputes more quickly and efficiently. The most significant aspect of Fast-Track SWIFT is its expeditious resolution process. Parties receive a NAD decision within 20 business days from the initiation of a challenge, i.e., the time that the advertiser receives the challenge.

Under the new rules, any person or entity may seek Fast-Track SWIFT review, but the Fast-Track SWIFT process is limited to issues in national advertising that do not require complex substantiation, such as clinical or technical testing or consumer perception evidence. Specifically, only the following three types of claims are eligible for fast-track review: the prominence or sufficiency of disclosures; misleading pricing and sales claims; and misleading express claims that do not require review of complex evidence or substantiation. NAD also provides hypothetical case examples it might find appropriate for fast-track determination.

Continue Reading NAD Launches Fast-Track SWIFT Process

Although the coronavirus pandemic has impacted every business over the past few weeks, companies offering negative option and subscription programs face a unique set of issues. On the one hand, the subscription model offers consumers benefits that are difficult to provide outside of this context (such as streaming services, online learning programs, and uninterrupted access). On the other hand, business interruptions — in addition to consumers tightening their budgets — have presented significant hurdles to the subscription model during the current pandemic.

For example, the current shutdown has prevented many companies that offer membership programs from continuing to provide these services to consumers, such as gyms, access passes, and in-person events. As a result, customers have increasingly begun to cancel their memberships to avoid paying for services that companies simply cannot fulfill. Online services are not immune to the fallout, as consumers who are tightening their belts and looking for ways to reduce spending have started cancelling recurring billing services, which they may view as unnecessary in the present circumstances.

Continue Reading Automatic Renewal Programs: Reducing Risks During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Last week, the FTC filed its first lawsuit involving COVID-19 disease claims, but the Commission took an approach it had largely abandoned in consumer protection cases, by filing for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in federal court and simultaneously filing an administrative action. Although COVID-19 claims are new, the procedural approach taken by the FTC is one that it has not used in years.

On April 24, the FTC filed a Complaint for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, in FTC v. Marc Ching. The Complaint alleged that the defendant, Marc Ching doing business as Whole Leaf Organics, disseminated false or unsubstantiated advertisements that its product, Thrive, treated, prevented, or reduced the risk of COVID-19. In addition, the defendant marketed a cannabidiol (CBD) product that it claimed could treat cancer.

The defendant had been the recipient of a warning letter from the federal Food and Drug Administration in November 2019, which warned the defendant that it was making unapproved new drug claims in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by claiming that its CBD products are intended for use in the mitigation, treatment, or prevention of diseases. According to the complaint, the defendant did not remove the unapproved drug claims from its website.

Continue Reading FTC Files Lawsuit Against Company Selling CBD Products, Claiming to Prevent or Treat COVID-19 and Cancer

As COVID-19 becomes a more prevalent part of everyday life, federal and state regulators have made it clear that they will aggressively enforce consumer protection laws against companies that seek to take improper advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a March 26, 2020, statement, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joe Simons strongly condemned businesses who engage in unfair and deceptive business practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chairman Simons stated that the FTC was working with federal and state law enforcers, consumer advocates, and business owners to protect consumers from companies who seek to take advantage of consumer fears regarding COVID-19. As we previously blogged, the FTC, along with the Food and Drug Administration, began taking action against these companies by issuing warning letters to seven sellers of unapproved or misbranded products which claimed that their products could treat or prevent COVID-19. In their respective statements regarding these warning letters, the FTC and FDA indicated that these warnings were only a first step and committed to aggressively pursuing companies who seek to take advantage of consumers during this national emergency. The FTC also published information about Coronavirus-related complaints from consumers, noting the significant number of Coronavirus-related complaints reported from consumers this year.

Continue Reading Federal Trade Commission and State Regulators Issue Warnings to Companies that Deceptively Advertise COVID-19-Related Products and Services