“Internet Law” explained

For some reason, every time one says “lawyer” people tend to think of criminal law, family law or personal injury law.  Perhaps because those are very common.  Most people even understand the concept of a corporate or business lawyer, someone who handles trust and estates, or even one that handles intellectual property.  However, when we say “Internet Law” many people get the most confused look on their face and say: “What the heck is that?” If that is you, you’re in good company.  And, to be fair, the Internet really hasn’t been around all that long.

If you were to read the “IT law” page on Wikipedia you’d see a section related to “Internet Law” but even that page falls a little short on a solid explanation – mostly because the law that surrounds the Internet is incredibly vast and is always evolving.

When we refer to “Internet Law” we are really talking about how varying legal principles and surrounding legislation influence and govern the internet, and it’s use.  For example, “Internet Law” can incorporate many different areas of law such as privacy law, contract law and intellectual property law…all which were developed before the internet was even a thing.  You also have to think how the Internet is global and how laws and application of those laws can vary by jurisdiction.

Internet Law can include the following:

  • Laws relating to website design
  • Laws relating to online speech and censorship of the same
  • Laws relating to how trademarks are used online
  • Laws relating to what rights a copyright holder may have when their images or other content is placed and used online
  • Laws relating to Internet Service Providers and what liabilities they may have based upon data they process or store or what their users do on their platforms
  • Laws relating to resolving conflicts over domain names
  • Laws relating to advertisements on websites, through apps, and through email
  • Laws relating to how goods and services are sold online

As you can see just from the few examples listed above, a lot goes into “Internet Law” and many Internet Law attorneys will pick only a few of these areas to focus on because it can be a challenge just to keep up.  Indeed, unlike other areas of law, “Internet Law” is not static and is always evolving.

Do you think you have an Internet Law related question? If you are in the state of Arizona and are looking for that solid “friend in the lawyering business” consider Beebe Law, PLLC!  We truly enjoy helping our  business and individual clients and strive to meet and exceed their goals!  Contact us today.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

 

 

 

 

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Section 230 is alive and well in California (for now) | Hassell v. Bird

Last week, on July 2, 2018 the Supreme Court of California overturned rulings that arguably threatened the ability for online platform users to share their thoughts and opinions freely by ruling in favor of Yelp in the hotly contested and widely watched Hassell v. Bird case.

For those that aren’t familiar with the underlying facts, I offer the following quick background:

In 2014 a dispute arose between California attorney, Dawn Hassell and her former client, Ava Bird when Bird posted a negative review of Hassell on the popular business review site, Yelp.  Hassell claimed that the content of the post was, among other things, defamatory and commenced an action against Bird for the same in the Superior Court of the County of San Francisco, Case No. CGC-13-530525. Bird failed to appear, and the Court entered a default order in favor of Hassell.  There is question as to whether Bird was actually served.  In addition, the court ordered Yelp, a non-party to the case who did not receive notice of the hearing, to remove reviews purportedly associated with Bird without explanation and enjoined Yelp from publishing any reviews from the suspected Bird accounts in the future.  Yelp challenged this order, but the court upheld its ruling.

Hoping for relief, Yelp appealed the decision to the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four, Case No. A143233. Unfortunately for Yelp, the Appellate Court offered no relief and held that: Yelp was not aggrieved by the judgment; the default judgment which including language requesting non-party Yelp to remove the reviews from the website was proper; that Yelp had no constitutional right to notice and hearing on the trial court’s order to remove the reviews from the website; that the order to remove the reviews from Yelp and to prohibit publication of future reviews was not an improper or overly broad prior restraint; and that the Communications Decency Act (“CDA” or “Section 230”) did not bar the trial court’s order to remove the reviews.

The Appellate Court’s ruling was clearly contrary to precedent in California and elsewhere around the country. Yelp appealed the matter to the California Supreme Court, Case No. S235968, to “protect its First Amendment right as a publisher, due process right to a hearing in connection with any order that targets speech on Yelp’s website, and to preserve the integrity of the CDA” according to the blog post written by Aaron Schur, Yelp’s Deputy General Counsel. While Yelp led the charge, they were not left to fight alone.

The internet rallied in support of Yelp.  Dozens of search engines, platforms, non-profit organizations and individuals who value the free sharing of information and ideas contributed amicus letters and amicus briefs (I co-authored an amicus brief for this case) in support of Yelp, including assistance from those like UCLA Law Professor and Washington Post contributor Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen Litigator, Paul Alan Levy, whose work spotlighted the ease in which bogus court orders and default judgments are obtained for the sole purpose of getting search engines like Google to de-index content.  In case you are wondering, bogus court orders and false DMCA schemes are indeed a real problem that many online publishers face.

On April 3, 2018 the California Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case. On July 2, 2018 the Supreme Court released its 102 page opinion in a 3-1-3 decision (three on a plurality opinion, one swing concurring, and three dissenting via two opinions) holding that Hassell’s failure to name Yelp as a defendant, an end run-around tactic, did not preclude the application of CDA immunity.  The court clearly stated “we must decide whether plaintiffs’ litigation strategy allows them to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly.  We believe the answer is no.” Based upon this win for the Internet, at least for now, online publishers in California (or those who have had this case thrown at them in demand letters or pleadings since the original trial and appellate court rulings) can breathe a sigh of relief that they cannot be forced to remove third-party content.

Aaron Shur made an important statement in concluding the Yelp blog post “…litigation is never a good substitute for customer service and responsiveness, and had the law firm avoided the courtroom and moved on, it would have saved time and money, and been able to focus more on the cases that truly matter the most – those of its clients.”  It’s important in both our professional and personal life to not get stuck staring at one tree when there is a whole forest of beauty around us.

While this is indeed a win, and returns the law back to status quo in California, it does raise some concern for some that certain comments in the opinion are signaling Congress to modify Section 230, again (referring to the recent enactment of FOSTA).  Santa Clara Law Professor, Eric Goldman broke down the Court’s lengthy opinion (a good read if you don’t want to spend the time to review the full opinion) while pointing out that “fractured opinions raise some doubts about the true holding of [the] case.”  The big question is where will things go from here?  Indeed, only time will tell.

Citation: Hassell v. Bird, 2018 WL 3213933 (Cal. Sup. Ct. July 2, 2018)

Trademarks and Fair Use in Commentary

I have clients who operate websites that allow third-party content.  While NOT my clients, think about sites like Yelp, Twitter, Glassdoor, or even Facebook as examples. When you operate websites that allow other people to go online and write whatever they want, chances are you are going to see an allegation of Trademark Infringement via a cease and desist letter.  I typically see them in the context of someone alleging trademark infringement because someone is using the trademark to talk about them online – most often critically.  These cease and desist letters come in from attorneys (which I always raise an eyebrow at), reputation management companies (again which I raise an eyebrow at) and everyday people which I can better understand because many simply don’t have an understanding of this area of law.

Due to the overwhelming issues that I see with these cease and desist letters, I thought it might be good to cover some basics:

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is a word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, that is used to distinguish the goods of one person from goods that are manufactured or sold by others.  Think of it as telling people the source of the goods.  Think of “Pepsi” or “The Home Depot” for example.  Those are trademarked words that clearly distinguishes them from other sources of goods like “Coca-Cola” or “Lowe’s.”

Protecting your Trademark.

It is important to police your trademark so as to keep it from falling by the way of generocide (death by becoming too generic due to its popularity and/or significance) or being counterfeited (knock-offs). A common example of generocide includes trademarks like “escalator” for the moving staircases.  If you are curious you can read more about generic trademarks.  A common example of trademark counterfeiting includes the cheap knock-off/fake Louis Vuitton handbags.  You know, the ones that look like it’s the real deal at first glance but any savvy fashionista knows better upon closer inspection.

Trying to use Trademark as a Reputation Management Method.

Yes, there are times when you should be policing your trademark as discussed above. However, just as I cannot talk about The Home Depot without saying “The Home Depot,” the same goes for anyone else wanting to talk (or write), good or bad, about a particular brand. Such use falls under what is called “nominative fair use” which applies when a person has used one’s trademark to describe or refer to the trademark holder’s product. As with most aspects of law there are caveats and tests, however, generally speaking, just because you have a registered trademark doesn’t mean that you can submit cease and desist letters and allege trademark infringement as a way to get websites to take down content critical of your business.  Chances are, in that context, it is NOT trademark infringement.

If you are in the state of Arizona and are looking for that solid “friend in the lawyering business” consider Beebe Law, PLLC!  We truly enjoy helping our  business clients meet and exceed their goals!  Contact us today.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.  

 

ADA Compliance and Websites: Yes, it’s really a thing.

I’ve said it before…it seems like everyone today has a website.  Whether you are a stay at home mom blogger, operate an e-commerce boutique shop, a local mechanic shop with a basic website or a full blown tech company – chances are you are no stranger to the internet and websites. Websites are how people find and interact with you or your company. Depending on what your website is designed for, you may have more risks to consider.  For example, as I recently discussed, if your website hosts third-party content, there are risks associated with that kind of a website.  Similarly, if your website collects email addresses so that you can later market to them, that presents an email marketing risk. This article is going to briefly discuss a new potential risk for website operators – that is compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

You might be thinking: “How could a website become an issue with the ADA?”  That was my initial reaction too until I considered people who are blind or have a hearing impairment.  It’s easy to take for granted senses that we are used to having.  Think of all the “closed captioned (cc) for the hearing impaired” text that we have heard/seen on the television in the past.  Well, how does that work for those videos that you are making and posting to your website?  How do people navigate your website if they can’t see? Until a recent conference I had never even thought about how a visually impaired person accesses the internet.  I have since discovered that the visually impaired often access the internet through a special screen reader.  JAWS seems to be the most popular and I found a few interesting YouTube videos that give a demonstration of the JAWS program from different perspectives.  If you are curious, like I was and want a unique perspective that may help you with your website accessibility, you can see two of the links I found HERE and HERE.  The second video is from a student’s perspective which has a lot of good insight – including difficulties with .pdf documents, etc.

The above examples coupled with the legal actions that have been taken against websites in relation to an ADA claim, and the fact that I am starting to see solicitations from Continuing Learning Education companies teaching attorneys how to initiate actions, sends a solid message that this is something people/businesses need to be thinking about as they move forward with their existing websites and/or build out  new websites.

THINGS TO KNOW AND UNDERSTAND:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employments, State and local government services, places of public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.
  • These laws can be enforced by the Department of Justice (DOJ) through private lawsuits and indeed there are cases where the DOJ has specifically stated in rulings that websites should be designed so that they are accessible to those who have physical disabilities including vision and hearing.
  • The DOJ has already required some websites to modify their sites to comply with the ADA guidelines – see the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.
  • There is no set required standards YET but it’s expected soon and they may require compliance within 12 months from the date of publication of the new standards to the public register.  If you have a big website, and perhaps a lot of changes that will need to be made, that isn’t a lot of time.

WHAT IS BEING LOOKED AT FOR COMPLIANCE?

WebAIM.org appears to be a pretty decent resource for information.  They have a pretty comprehensive checklist that may assist you and your website developing team out, however, below is a few points for consideration:

Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.

  • Guideline 1.1: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need online – think of large print, speech, symbols or simpler language.
  • Guideline 1.2: Provide captions and alternatives for multimedia.
  • Guideline 1.3: Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example a more simplistic layout) without losing information or structure.
  • Guideline 1.4: Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.

User interface components and navigation must be operable.

  • Guideline 2.1: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Guideline 2.2: Provide users enough time to read and use content.
  • Guideline 2.3: Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures (like flashing content)
  • Guideline 2.4: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.

Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.

  • Guideline 3.1: Make text content readable and understandable.
  • Guideline 3.2: Make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Guideline 3.3: Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

  • Guideline 4.1: Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

WHAT IF MY WEBSITE ISN’T COMPLIANT?   

For websites that aren’t compliant the following are some things you should consider:

  • Have a 24/7 telephone number serviced by a live customer service agent who can provide access to the information on the website – the phone number must be identified on the website and be accessible using a screen reader.
  • Consider starting to make adjustments to your website to help ensure you are compliant.

NEED HELP ENSURING COMPLIANCE?

It is always a good idea to get a formal legal opinion on these kinds of matters if in doubt. Being proactive is a far better position to be in than being reactive and in a time crunch and money might be tight. If you are in the state of Arizona, and need help with suggestions on how to help make your website ADA compliant or would like to discuss this topic generally so that you have a better understanding of how this issue might impact your business, Beebe Law, PLLC can help!  Contact us today.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.  

 

 

So You Want to Run a Website: Common Risks When Hosting Third-Party Content

It seems like EVERYONE today has a website.  Whether it be a personal blog to a full scale business – websites are how people “find” and often “interact” with you today.  However, just like any business, it doesn’t come without risk.  This article will address a few of the most common areas where a website operator can incur liability if they want to host third-party content (i.e., you want to allow people to post and/or comment on postings).

To begin with, as I have referenced in my prior articles regarding Troubles with Defamatory Online Reviews and Content ScrapersThat Would be Harsher Punishment for internet Defamers StanWhy Google De-Indexing May NOT be an Effective Reputation Management Solution, etc., at least in the United States, the federal law often referred to as the Communications Decency Act, aka Section 230 or the “CDA” generally immunizes websites from third-party content.  In layman’s terms, this means that an internet service provider, such as a website, is not typically liable for content written by a third-party.  That does NOT, however, mean that you don’t have to be cautious.  In fact, the intricacies of the law surrounding the CDA can be quite complex.  It would be tragic for an unsuspecting business to be sued into bankruptcy over preventable little mistakes.

The following are a few common areas of potential liability:

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY:  Intellectual Property, including claims of Copyright and Trademark Infringement are NOT barred by the Communications Decency Act.  If a third-party puts content on your website that infringes on someone else’s Copyright or Trademark, you could be held liable.

DEVELOPING CONTENT:  Depending on how you solicit and/or edit a third-party’s content you could be held liable.  Many of plaintiffs have argued against website’s editorial decisions or even what sort of requirements/fields are built in for website users to enter information into, can take them outside of the protections of the CDA.

If you are considering starting up a new website or a business with an existing website it is wise to take these matters into account at the very beginning, or as soon as otherwise practicable.  Moreover, individuals and businesses are wise to consult an internet lawyer that practices in internet law when beginning to lay out their business plan for their website.  A consultation fee now can save you THOUSANDS in the long run.

Until next time friends…

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.  If you are in the state of Arizona, and seeking consultation in the area of infringement relating to Copyright, Trademark, or other risks associated with being a website and hosting third-party content, contact Beebe Law, PLLC today.