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Digital Marketing Minute: No More Like Gates

We are pleased to present this inaugural post of the Digital Marketing Minute.  Each week will provide a short post on some news in the digital marketing world.   This week’s post is about a change on Facebook’s platform that affects how marketers conduct promotions.

In an August 7 post on its Developers blog page, Facebook announced that, effective November 5, 2014, use of a “Like Gate,” which requires Facebook users to “Like” a page before participating in a brand’s promotional activity, is not allowed.  In other words, marketers cannot require consumers to “Like” a brand page before entering a sweepstakes or a contest, participating in an offer or accessing certain content.

Facebook reasons that banning the Like Gate will help “ensure quality connections and help businesses reach the people who matter to them” and that consumers “’Like’ pages because they want to connect and hear from the business, not because of artificial incentives” (see https://developers.facebook.com/blog/post/2014/08/07/Graph-API-v2.1/).

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Disclosures Need Not Contain Customers’ Actual Names to Violate the Video Privacy Protection Act Rules Hulu Court

In the latest of a string of victories for the plaintiffs in the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) class action litigation against Hulu, LLC, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that Hulu’s sharing of certain customer information with Facebook, Inc. may have violated the VPPA, even though Hulu did not disclose the actual names of its customers.  The ruling leaves Hulu potentially liable for the disclosures under the VPPA and opens the door to similar claims against other providers of online content.

The decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler addressed Hulu’s argument on summary judgment that it could not have violated the VPPA because Hulu “disclosed only anonymous user IDs and never linked the user IDs to identifying data such as a person’s name or address.”  The court rejected Hulu’s argument, stating that “[Hulu’s] position paints too bright a line.”  Noting that the purpose of the VPPA was to prevent the disclosure of information “that identifies a specific person and ties that person to particular videos that the person watched” the court held that liability turned on whether the Hulu’s disclosures were “merely an anonymized ID” or “whether they are closer to linking identified persons to the videos they watched.”

Under this principle, the court held that Hulu’s disclosures to comScore, a metrics company that Hulu employed to analyze its viewership for programming and advertising purposes, did not violate the VPPA.  According to the court, Hulu’s disclosure to comScore included anonymized user IDs and other information that could theoretically be used to identify the particular individuals and their viewing choices.  But the plaintiffs had no evidence that comScore had actually used the information in that way.  As the evidence did not “suggest any linking of a specific, identified person and his video habits” the court held that the disclosures to comScore did not support a claim under the VPPA.

But the court held that Hulu’s disclosure to Facebook had potentially violated the VPPA.  Hulu’s disclosures to Facebook included certain cookies that Hulu sent to Facebook that allowed Hulu to load a Facebook “Like” button on users’ web browsers.  The court held that the cookies that Hulu sent to Facebook to accomplish this task “together reveal information about what the Hulu user watched and who the Hulu user is on Facebook.”  The court noted that this disclosure was “not merely the transmission of a unique, anonymous ID”; rather it was “information that identifies the Hulu user’s actual identity on Facebook” as well as the video that the Facebook user was watching.  Thus, the court held, Hulu’s disclosures to Facebook potentially violated the VPPA.

The Court’s ruling that disclosure of seemingly anonymous IDs can potentially lead to liability under the VPPA should cause companies that are potentially covered by the law to reexamine the ways in which they provide data to third parties.  Such companies should carefully consider not only what information is disclosed but also how the recipients of that data can reasonably be expected [...]

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FTC Enforces Facebook Policies to Stop Jerk

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently accused the operator of www.Jerk.com (Jerk) of misrepresenting to users the source of the personal content that Jerk used for its purported social networking website and the benefits derived from a user’s purchase of a Jerk membership.   According to the FTC, Jerk improperly accessed personal information about consumers from Facebook, used the information to create millions of unique profiles identifying subjects as either “Jerk” or “Not a Jerk” and falsely represented that a user could dispute the Jerk/Not a Jerk label and alter the information posted on the website by paying a $30 subscription fee.  The interesting issue in this case is not the name of the defendant or its unsavory business model; rather, what’s interesting is the FTC’s tacit enforcement of Facebook’s privacy policies governing the personal information of Facebook’s own users.

Misrepresenting the Source of Personal Information

Although Jerk represented that its profile information was created by its users and reflected those users’ views of the profiled individuals, Jerk in fact obtained the profile information from Facebook.  In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Jerk accessed Facebook’s data through Facebook’s application programming interfaces (API), which are tools developers can use to interact with Facebook, and downloaded the names and photographs of millions of Facebook users without consent. The FTC used Facebook’s various policies as support for its allegation that Jerk improperly obtained the personal information of Facebook’s users and, in turn, misrepresented the source of the information.  The FTC noted that developers accessing the Facebook platform must agree to Facebook’s policies, which include (1) obtaining users’ explicit consent to share certain Facebook data; (2) deleting information obtained through Facebook once Facebook disables the developers’ Facebook access; (3) providing an easily accessible mechanism for consumers to request the deletion of their Facebook data; and (4) deleting information obtained from Facebook upon a consumer’s request.  Jerk used the data it collected from Facebook not to interact with Facebook but to create unique Jerk profiles for its own commercial advantage.  Jerk’s misappropriation of user data from Facebook was the actual source of the data contrary to Jerk’s representation that the data had been provided by Jerk’s users.

Misrepresenting the Benefit of the Bargain

According to the FTC, Jerk represented that purchase of a $30 subscription would enable users to obtain “premium features,” including the ability to dispute information posted on Jerk and alter or delete their Jerk profile and dispute the false information on their profile.  Users who paid the subscription often received none of the promised benefits.  The FTC noted that contacting Jerk with complaints was difficult for consumers:  Jerk charged $25 for users to email the customer service department.

A hearing is scheduled for January 2015. Notably, the FTC’s proposed Order, among other prohibitions, enjoins Jerk from using in any way the personal information that Jerk obtained prior to the FTC’s action – meaning the personal information that was obtained illegally from Facebook.

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