With a new leader at the Federal Trade Commission comes new rules of practice. Chair Lina Kahn convened a first-of-its-kind open Commission meeting, allowing for live public comments following the meeting. In addition to issuing the Made in the USA Final Rule at the meeting, the FTC revised the procedures for issuing Magnuson-Moss Rules. This carries out Commissioner Chopra and now-Chair Khan’s call for more rulemaking, and the next step to former Chair Slaughter’s creation of a rulemaking group within the Commission. The changes concentrate the rulemaking process in the Chair’s office and strip away many of the procedures that helped lead to rules based on bipartisan consensus among the commissioners and support from FTC staff.

By way of background, to pass a rule under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Federal Trade Commission Improvements Act (“Mag-Moss”), the FTC must: (1)  make a finding that the conduct at issue is “prevalent” and (2) conduct informal hearings allowing interested parties to cross-examine those making oral presentations. The FTC appears interested in applying Mag-Moss rulemaking in both the competition and consumer protection contexts.  Though Mag-Moss has statutory requirements that the FTC must follow, such as publishing a notice of proposed rulemaking, allowing public comment from interested persons, providing the opportunity for informal hearings, and promulgating rules based on the final record, the FTC has enacted procedural rules to carry out these statutory requirements.


Continue Reading New Changes at the FTC: Return of the Rulemaking

The FTC has sued a seller of personal protective equipment (PPE), bringing its first PPE-related case under the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act (CCPA). The lawsuit demonstrates the FTC’s continued focus on COVID-19-related advertising practices. Although this is not the first time the FTC has brought an action for a failure to deliver PPE on time,

State attorneys general nationwide have continued to be aggressive consumer protection law enforcers. In the wake of April’s unanimous Supreme Court decision curtailing the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) ability to recoup equitable monetary relief from businesses accused of fraudulent or deceptive practices, state-level enforcement activity and state-federal coordination are expected to increase. In fact, just days after our recent webinar a coalition of state AGs wrote to Congress supporting legislation that would restore the FTC’s authority, while noting that “the states’ own enforcement efforts are fortified through collaboration with the FTC.” In that webinar, Venable partners Eric Berman, of our Advertising and Marketing Group, and Erik Jones, of our eCommerce, Privacy, and Cybersecurity Group, addressed state AG enforcement trends and strategies for responding to a state AG investigation.

Q: How do state AGs become aware of the issues or complaints that might drive an investigation?

A: Consumer complaints drive regulatory investigations, and state AGs may become aware of these complaints in a variety of ways. Consumers can file complaints directly with a state AG office, either online, via telephone hotline, or via “snail mail.” State AG staff may access the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel, a consumer complaint database that is free and available to any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency. State AG lawyers and non-lawyer investigators scour the Better Business Bureau (BBB) websites and so-called “gripe” sites, and may pose as consumers themselves to “secret shop” a targeted business. Finally, state AGs might become aware of your marketing practices through disgruntled former employees (or board members), competitor complaints, national and local media coverage, or referrals from other law enforcers.


Continue Reading You Asked, We Answered – State AGs and Consumer Protection: An Update and Outlook

There’s a new sheriff – er, chairwoman – in town over at the FTC, and she’s planning to shake things up. During the Commission’s first open meeting in more than 20 years, Chairwoman Khan announced a new era of streamlined, widespread rulemaking, and increased public participation, transparency, and fairness. However, as every single vote broke along party lines, with the Democratic majority steamrolling Republican requests for increased dialogue, public comment periods, and expert input, the open meetings may be little more than political theater intended to cover a massive change in how the FTC operates. In fact, public comments were relegated to the end of the meeting, after votes were already cast, and the commissioners were given only five days, the bare minimum time, to consider the new rules and regulations. In the words of Commissioner Phillips, the Democratic majority wants to make regulating “easier, not better.” And after yesterday’s votes, it seems likely that the “new” FTC will look a lot like the FTC of the 1970s, which was widely criticized as a body of five unelected officials with broad, self-granted and oft-exercised power to regulate the economy badly. According to Commissioner Wilson, “if we don’t acknowledge the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them.”

Below are some highlights from the meeting.


Continue Reading FTC Holds First Open Meeting in 20 Years

Following the Supreme Court’s April ruling in AMG Capital Management that the FTC is not entitled to monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, the FTC has pivoted to other weapons in its enforcement arsenal to obtain monetary relief from those subject to enforcement actions.  The latest example is the FTC’s pursuit of civil penalties against a merchant cash advance provider.

The FTC initially sued RCG Advances, LLC and other defendants who provided merchant cash advances to small businesses in June 2020 for allegedly taking out withdrawals that exceeded the agreed-upon repayment amount.  Lacking the ability to obtain monetary relief after the AMG decision, the FTC got creative and amended its complaint, adding new statutory claims under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (the GLB Act).  Under the GLB Act, the FTC alleges that the defendants obtained customers’ financial information by making “false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement[s] or representation[s.]”  The FTC is empowered with enforcing the GLB Act—and dozens of other statutes, such the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act—as rule violations, meaning the FTC can seek consumer redress under Section 19 of the FTC Act and civil penalties.
Continue Reading Rolling with the Punches: The FTC Goes with Civil Penalties after AMG Capital Management Takes Away Section 13(b) Authority

A recent decision by the Second Circuit in an antitrust case involving advertising may have long-standing effects on how competitors use each other’s names and trademarks in advertising and on settlement agreements in the intellectual property space. The Second Circuit’s decision in 1-800 Contacts, Inc. v. FTC could allow competitors more freedom to agree on restraints on the use of their trademarks. While agreements between competitors should still be carefully considered from an antitrust perspective, this decision has signaled a deference to parties’ negotiated trademark settlements that could allow new and more robust approaches to trademark protection. This is especially true where, as here, competitors attempt to agree on limits to the use of their trademarks in search terms purchased for advertising purposes on search engines such as Google.

Background

In November of 2017, we discussed an Initial Decision by an FTC ALJ that 1-800 Contacts had violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by negotiating settlement agreements with its competitors that were anti-competitive in nature. Specifically, such agreements mutually limited each parties’ abilities to bid on search terms containing each other’s trademarks and URLs in auctions for placement in search results on websites such as Google. The ALJ found that 1-800 Contacts directly harmed competition and consumers in the online market for contact lenses and rejected 1-800 Contacts’ argument that such agreements were pro-competitive because, among other things, they efficiently protected trademark rights while avoiding expensive litigation.


Continue Reading After an Almost Four-Year Battle, the Second Circuit Sees Anti-Competitive Concerns Differently Than the FTC in 1-800 Contacts Case

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

Earlier today, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in AMG Capital Management v. Federal Trade Commission, holding that Congress, by enacting Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, did not grant the Commission authority to obtain equitable monetary relief when it proceeds in federal district courts under that section.

Specifically, Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act gives the Commission authority to bring suit in federal district court against those it believes are “violating” or “about to violate” the FTC Act, in order to “enjoin any such act or practice.” In such cases, Section 13(b) further provides courts with the authority to issue a “permanent injunction.” Since the late 1970s, the FTC has taken the position, accepted by courts, that this grant of authority included the ability to obtain equitable monetary relief. The Supreme Court today said not so.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court first looked to the plain language of 13(b). It recognized that the statute only allows for injunctions. The Court stated, plainly, that “an injunction is not the same as an award of equitable monetary relief.”


Continue Reading Disgorgement [Supremely] Denied: Supreme Court Unanimously Curtails the FTC’s Authority in AMG Capital Management v. FTC