Searching “millennials killed…” on the Internet returns over 1.5 million results in .65 seconds. Commentators have blamed the generation raised by tablets, smartphones, and apps for killing everything from marriage to brunch, often deriding today’s youth for being too opinionated and too obnoxious. It is a bit ironic, then, that the right to complain was almost a casualty of the technology generation.

Today, ecommerce and social media are ubiquitous and intertwined. For example, any ecommerce site worth its salt will include interactive user comments that enable purchasers to praise or critique products. Moreover, the power of online review sites, such as Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes, to set consumer tastes is only increasing. For example, a study conducted at Harvard Business School concluded that a one-star improvement on Yelp would lead to a roughly 9% increase in revenue for restaurants. Considering how thin profit margins are in the restaurant sector, 9% could make or break a small business.

In response to the growing significance of user reviews, some companies sought to protect their revenue streams by including non-disparagement clauses in form contracts, such as terms of service and other click-through agreements. Retailers, studios, restaurants and even hotels used these gag clauses to suppress bad reviews by levying fines and imposing other penalties on consumers. Continue Reading Get Your Gripe On: The Consumer Review Fairness Act Is Live

A federal district court judge refused to grant summary judgment to the copyright owners of the Star Trek franchise in the infringement suit they brought against the team behind a fan-made, crowdfunded prequel to the original Star Trek television series.

Strict new European Union privacy rules will restrict Internet companies’ access to consumers’ data.

Brands might soon be able to place video ads within Instagram Stories.

Driving while Snapchatting (or holding your cell phone in your hand for any other possible reason) is now illegal in California.

China is reportedly testing a system that assigns potentially life-altering “scores” to people based on their online activity.

How much about the future of the Internet do you think Bill Gates was able to predict 20 years ago?

The 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee website’s privacy policy apparently contains language suggesting it was lifted from a casino website.  

A small neighborhood restaurant turned the tables on a Yelp critic.

Concerned about the post-mortem fate of your property, legacy and reputation? Don’t forget your digital assets. This New York Times article explains how to make sure your wishes are carried out.

If you spot these apps on your significant other’s phone, it might be time to worry.

PrintAs we noted in our recent post on the Ninth Circuit case Kimzey v. Yelp! Inc., in the right circumstances, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) still provides robust protection against liability for website operators despite the unusually large number of decisions this year seemingly narrowing the scope of the statute. Defendants notched another Section 230 win recently in Manchanda v. Google, a case in the Southern District of New York. The case began in May 2016 when Rahul Manchanda, an attorney, filed a complaint alleging that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft harmed his reputation by indexing certain websites that described him in negative terms.

Manchanda asserted various claims against the three defendants, including defamation, libel, slander, tortious interference with contract, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of the duty of loyalty, unfair trade practices, false advertising, unlawful trespass, civil RICO, unjust enrichment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and trademark infringement. Manchanda sought injunctive relief requiring the defendants to “de-index or remove the offending websites from their search engines” in addition to damages.

The court made quick work of dismissing most of Manchanda’s claims on Section 230 grounds, emphasizing that the CDA “immunizes search engines from civil liability for reputational damage resulting from third-party content that they aggregate and republish.” The court went on to note that “[t]his immunity attaches regardless of the specific claim asserted against the search engine, so long as the claim arises from the publication or distribution of content produced by a third party and the alleged injury involves damage to a plaintiff’s reputation based on that content.” Continue Reading In a Rough Year for CDA Section 230, Manchanda v. Google Provides Comfort to Website Operators

“Yellow journalism” websites are using social media to capitalize on popular ideology. And they’re making a bundle.

New York City recently passed the country’s first law protecting the wages of “gig economy” workers. The Wall Street Journal published an illuminating infographic illustrating who’s making a living that way.

Twitter suspended high-profile accounts associated with the “alt-right” movement.

A state law kept 43,000 wannabe Uber users in upstate New York from ordering a car from the ride-hailing service on Thanksgiving eve.

PayPal reported some surprising statistics about this year’s online shopping over Thanksgiving weekend. Check out our own blog post from last year on how social commerce is killing off both Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Two new ethics opinions from the D.C. Bar provide an excellent overview of potential ethical issues raised by social media use by attorneys; among other things, the opinions highlight the need for lawyers to exercise caution when tweeting or posting positions on legal issues (which could potentially create an inadvertent conflict with a client’s interest), and in allowing social media platforms to access their email contacts (which could potentially identify clients or divulge information for which there is an ethical obligation to protect from disclosure). The opinions can be reviewed here and here.

Apparently vlogging can be a grind even for the most financially successful social media stars.

This New York Times piece exploring how Snapchat revolutionized social media discusses some of the unique platform and business model features that we cited last year as responsible for Snapchat’s success.

CNN bought a social media company founded by a YouTube star with a millennial following.

Speaking of CNN, that company and other prominent news publishers are getting low app store ratings from people claiming that such publishers have a liberal bias.

Google Maps just made it easier to snag a table at usually-crowded restaurants and watering holes.

Think twice before giving out your cellphone number.

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2016 has been a challenging year for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the website operators who depend on it for protection against liability stemming from user-generated content. An unusually large number of cases this year have resulted in decisions holding that the defendant website operators were not entitled to immunity under Section 230. For example, as we’ve discussed recently, in Hassel v. Bird, the California Court of Appeal held that Section 230 did not prevent the court from ordering Yelp to remove from its website allegedly defamatory reviews posted by users, even though Yelp was not a party in the underlying defamation suit.

We are working on an article surveying some of the recent cases holding that Section 230 did not apply. But in the meantime, it is important to remember that Section 230 remains a powerful shield against liability and that defendants continue to wield it successfully in many cases. The Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Kimzey v. Yelp is one such case.

Kimzey arose from two negative Yelp reviews that user “Sarah K” posted in September 2011 about Douglas Kimzey’s locksmith business in the Seattle area. Sarah K’s reviews were extremely negative and rated Kimzey one out of five stars in Yelp’s multiple-choice star rating system. In all caps, she warned Yelpers that “THIS WAS BY FAR THE WORST EXPERIENCE I HAVE EVER ENCOUNTERED WITH A LOCKSMITH. DO NOT GO THROUGH THIS COMPANY . . . CALL THIS BUSINESS AT YOUR OWN RISK.” Continue Reading Yelp Case Shows CDA §230 Still Has Teeth

Thumbs Up on Social Technology and Internet Set

Social media is reportedly rife with influencers promoting or reviewing products or services without disclosing compensation or other consideration that they’ve received for such endorsements. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the UK’s consumer protection regulator, is stepping up efforts to combat such undisclosed endorsements.

Following a ruling against an influencer marketing company, Social Chain Ltd, the CMA has warned 15 companies and 43 “social media personalities” who used Social Chain to publish content on social media that they could be in breach of UK consumer protection laws.

As we have discussed many times in Socially Aware, the advertising landscape has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past decade. The rise of social media and ever-increasing levels of Internet access across the world have made social media advertising a strong challenger to more traditional—and expensive—advertising methods, such as television advertising.

Of course, there is nothing novel in companies seeking to use celebrities to attract attention to and create excitement for their brand messages. But what has changed is the medium; when a consumer follows a celebrity on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat or Twitter (especially a social media personality who has become famous as a result of being on YouTube, Instagram, etc.), it’s not always easy to distinguish between a genuine opinion and an advertisement. Continue Reading UK Consumer Protection Regulator Cracks Down on Undisclosed Endorsements and “Cherry Picking” Reviews on Social Media

The California Supreme Court agreed to hear Yelp’s case arguing that requiring the company to remove a one-star review of a law firm “creates a gaping hole” in the immunity that shields internet service providers from suits related to user-generated content.

Images, videos and quoted tweets no longer count toward Twitter’s 140-charter limit.

Google is undertaking cutting-edge efforts to battle online trolls.

Only 28 websites are registered under North Korea’s top level .kp domain.

Chinese law enforcement agencies investigating criminal cases can now secretly request access to personal information posted on social media services.

Back here in the United States, Twitter’s bi-annual transparency report shows that between January and June the platform received 2,520 information requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies.

The Department of Transportation issued a 15-point list of safety expectations for driverless cars.

Relationship Science, a repository of information about influential people and their connections, is opening its database to everyone, a change that could put the company in competition with LinkedIn.

Content marketers need to publish how many articles a week to make a difference?! Sigh.

Building an audience on Snapchat seems pretty arduous, too.

Concerned that your identity may have been stolen in some of the major hacking attacks in the last three years? Take this quiz to learn your minimum level of exposure and what you can do about it.

The five most popular bots on Botlist last week.

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A recent California court decision involving Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is creating considerable concern among social media companies and other website operators.

As we’ve discussed in past blog posts, CDA Section 230 has played an essential role in the growth of the Internet by shielding website operators from defamation and other claims arising from content posted to their websites by others.

Under Section 230, a website operator is not “treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided” by a user of that website; as a result, online businesses such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been able to thrive despite hosting user-generated content on their platforms that may be false, deceptive or malicious and that, absent Section 230, might subject these and other Internet companies to crippling lawsuits.

Recently, however, the California Court of Appeal affirmed a lower court opinion that could significantly narrow the contours of Section 230 protection. After a law firm sued a former client for posting defamatory reviews on Yelp.com, the court not only ordered the former client to remove the reviews, but demanded that Yelp (which was not party to the dispute) remove these reviews.

The case, Hassell v. Bird, began in 2013 when attorney Dawn Hassell sued former client Ava Bird regarding three negative reviews that Hassell claimed Bird had published on Yelp.com under different usernames. Hassell alleged that Bird had defamed her, and, after Bird failed to appear, the California trial court issued an order granting Hassell’s requested damages and injunctive relief.

In particular, the court ordered Bird to remove the offending posts, but Hassell further requested that the court require Yelp to remove the posts because Bird had not appeared in the case herself. The court agreed, entering a default judgment and ordering Yelp to remove the offending posts. (The trial court also ordered that any subsequent comments associated with Bird’s alleged usernames be removed, which the Court of Appeal struck down as an impermissible prior restraint.) Yelp challenged the order on a variety of grounds, including under Section 230.

The Court of Appeal held that the Section 230 safe harbor did not apply, and that Yelp could be forced to comply with the order. The court reasoned that the order requiring Yelp to remove the reviews did not impose any liability on Yelp; Yelp was not itself sued for defamation and had no damages exposure, so Yelp did not face liability as a speaker or publisher of third-party speech. Rather, citing California law that authorized a court to prevent the repetition of “statements that have been adjudged to be defamatory,” the court characterized the injunction as “simply” controlling “the perpetuation of judicially declared defamatory statements.” The court acknowledged that Yelp could face liability for failing to comply with the injunction, but that would be liability under the court’s contempt power, not liability as a speaker or publisher.

The Hassell case represents a significant setback for social media companies, bloggers and other website operators who rely on the Section 230 safe harbor to shield themselves from the misconduct of their users. While courts have previously held that a website operator may be liable for “contribut[ing] materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct”—such as StubHub.com allegedly suggesting and encouraging illegally high ticket resale prices—here, in contrast, there is no claim that Yelp contributed to or aided in the creation or publication of the defamatory reviews, besides merely providing the platform on which such reviews were hosted.

Of particular concern for online businesses is that Hassell appears to create an end-run around Section 230 for plaintiffs who seek to have allegedly defamatory or false user-generated content removed from a website—sue the suspected posting party and, if that party fails to appear, obtain a default judgment; with a default judgment in hand, seek a court order requiring the hosting website to remove the objectionable post, as the plaintiff was able to do in the Hassell case.

Commentators have observed that Hassell is one of a growing number of recent decisions seeking to curtail the scope of Section 230. After two decades of expansive applications of Section 230, are we now on the verge of a judicial backlash against the law that has helped to fuel the remarkable success of the U.S. Internet industry?

 

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For other Socially Aware blog posts regarding the CDA Section 230 safe harbor, please see the following: How to Protect Your Company’s Social Media Currency; Google AdWords Decision Highlights Contours of the CDA Section 230 Safe Harbor; and A Dirty Job: TheDirty.com Cases Show the Limits of CDA Section 230.

 

Reviews glossy green round buttonAmazon’s customer reviews have long been a go-to resource for consumers researching prospective purchases. Unfortunately, fake customer reviews—product critiques commissioned by merchants and manufacturers in an effort to bolster their own products’ reputations or undermine their competitors’—have been around for almost as long.

Now, in its quest to maintain the integrity of its customer reviews, Amazon is targeting an unlikely group: the fake-review writers themselves, all 1,114 of whom advertised their availability to write the phony reviews on Fiverr, a website where freelancers offer services like converting documents from one file format to another for as little as five dollars.

In its other attempts to crack down on phony product evaluations, Amazon has named as defendants the websites where phony-review writers solicit work. Unlike those defendant sites, however, which had URLs including and similar to “buyamazonreviews.com,” Fiverr, in its own terms of service, reserves the right to remove gigs that violate the terms of service of third parties, like Amazon.

This latest attempt by Amazon to quash the phony product reviews on its site is reportedly the first to go after individual reviewers. Because they probably don’t have particularly deep pockets, fake-review writers who advertise on Fiverr might seem like unlikely defendants in a suit filed by a retail giant like Amazon. But, as Computerworld’s Evan Schuman points out, what’s really at issue is how Amazon’s customers are likely to perceive the intention behind Amazon’s legal crusades.

“[W]ith Amazon, the credibility of online reviews is crucial and Amazon users would see people who write fake reviews as enemies,” Schuman writes. “Amazon sends the best possible message to its customers when it’s seen as proactively and aggressively seeking out such evildoers: ‘We believe in our products and services and know that honest reviews will be of the greatest value.’”

To uncover the real names of the fake-review writers—as opposed to naming a bunch of “John” and “Jane Does” as defendants—Amazon undertook an elaborate undercover sting operation  that included actually hiring several fraudsters who had advertised their services. The fact that the company went to such great lengths to uncover the real culprits should help to boost customers’ confidence that Amazon is making a good faith effort to protect their best interests.

It may also serve as an effective deterrent to the wrongdoers.

“If it’s done enough,” Shuman opines, “you plant the seed of doubt in the mind of the criminal: ‘Is this prospective client real or an undercover Amazon investigator? And is it really worth $5 to find out the hard way?’”

On the other hand, Amazon’s efforts to eradicate online fake reviews may well turn out to be a giant game of whac-a-mole, with new wrongdoers springing up to take the place of the ones driven off the market all the time. Great conveniences often come at a price, and—in the Internet age—that price takes the form of nuisances like fake product reviews, spam, trolling and pop-up ads.

10-14-2015 3-48-13 PMThe latest issue of our Socially Aware newsletter is now available here.

In this issue of Socially Aware, our Burton Award-winning guide to the law and business of social media, we highlight five key social media law issues to address with your corporate clients; we discuss when social media posts are discoverable in litigation; we identify six important considerations in drafting legal terms for mobile apps; we take a look at the clash between bankruptcy law and privacy law in RadioShack’s Chapter 11 proceedings; we examine a recent federal district court decision finding “browsewrap” terms of use to be of benefit to a website operator even if not a binding contract; we outline best practices for employers’ use of social media to screen and interact with employees and conduct workplace investigations; we explore a Washington state court’s refusal to unmask an anonymous online reviewer; and we discuss Facebook’s recent update of its “Notes” feature.

All this—plus an infographic illustrating the growing popularity of video on social media.

Read our newsletter.