A Fuller Explanation of Why the FTC Endorsement/Testimonial Guidelines Violate 47 USC 230
By Eric Goldman
Last week’s release of the FTC’s new Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines has generated a significant amount of angst online. The resulting commentary has been strongly and almost uniformly negative. Frankly, none of the sources I read have praised the guidelines, but perhaps I’m locked in an echo chamber. Declan has a useful recap/linkwrap.
In this environment of heightened negativity, people have been searching for angles to prove the FTC can’t do what it’s doing. This has led folks to my post from last week arguing that certain facets of the guidelines violate 47 USC 230.
Despite the general popularity of the post, privately it has attracted some skepticism. Several smart law professors/lawyers disagreed with my post in Facebook profile page comments, and I’ve gotten some private emails to the same effect. What’s caught my attention is that these disagreements are coming from folks who normally agree with my expansive 230 interpretations. This clearly indicated to me that 230’s application to the FTC’s scenario was not nearly as self-evident as I thought it was.
As a result, in this post, I’m going to describe my analysis in more detail than my previous post. I’m not sure I’ll convince the doubters, but they deserve more detail than I initially provided.
The FTC’s Example
There are many facets to the new guidelines, but I am focusing solely on Example #5 to §255.1, which reads:
Example 5: A skin care products advertiser participates in a blog advertising service. The service matches up advertisers with bloggers who will promote the advertiser’s products on their personal blogs. The advertiser requests that a blogger try a new body lotion and write a review of the product on her blog. Although the advertiser does not make any specific claims about the lotion’s ability to cure skin conditions and the blogger does not ask the advertiser whether there is substantiation for the claim, in her review the blogger writes that the lotion cures eczema and recommends the product to her blog readers who suffer from this condition. The advertiser is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made through the blogger’s endorsement. [my emphasis]
The blogger also is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made in the course of her endorsement. The blogger is also liable if she fails to disclose clearly and conspicuously that she is being paid for her services. [See § 255.5.]
In order to limit its potential liability, the advertiser should ensure that the advertising service provides guidance and training to its bloggers concerning the need to ensure that statements they make are truthful and substantiated. The advertiser should also monitor bloggers who are being paid to promote its products and take steps necessary to halt the continued publication of deceptive representations when they are discovered.
The FTC doesn’t define what qualifies as a “blog advertising service,” but it’s fairly clear the FTC is targeting PayPerPost/Izea and its competition. So the example could be restated as:
* advertiser contracts with PayPerPost to get bloggers to write about its product
* PayPerPost makes a match with a blogger. There is no employment or agency relationship between the advertiser or the blogger; this is an ordinary customer-vendor relationship, mediated by PayPerPost
* without any pre-review or kibitzing by the advertiser, the blogger makes a truthful statement about the blogger’s experience about the product, but the statement would be impermissible marketing if made by the advertiser
* the FTC treats the advertiser as having made the blogger’s statement
Prima Facie Elements of a 47 USC 230 Defense
47 USC 230(c)(1) reads:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
A successful 230(c)(1) defense breaks down into three prima facie elements:
1) the defendant must be a “provider or user of an interactive computer service”
2) the content generating the alleged liability must be “information provided by another information content provider”
3) the legal claim has to treat the defendant as the “publisher or speaker” of the third party content
230 has a number of statutory exclusions, but I don’t think any of them are relevant to Example 5.
Application of 47 USC 230 to Example #5
With this in mind, the FTC’s Example #5 satisfies the prima facie elements of a successful 230 defense as follows: the advertiser is the user of an interactive computer service, the blog post is content provided by another information content provider, and the FTC’s theory that the advertiser adopts or endorses the blog post treats the advertiser as the publisher or speaker of the third party blogger’s blog post.
I received significant skepticism about my characterization of the advertiser as the “user” of an interactive computer service. I can reach this conclusion in two ways. First, PayPerPost provides an interactive computer service, and the advertiser uses PayPerPost. Second, the advertiser is a “user” of some Internet connectivity provider just by getting online.
Admittedly, explanation #2 is expansive, perhaps disconcertingly so. By this reasoning, anyone online automatically qualifies as a “user” of an interactive computer service by definition, thus seemingly expanding the 230 immunization eligibility to everyone without restriction. While this may sound wrong, it’s entirely consistent with how courts have interpreted the term “user.” The leading case on the topic, the California Supreme Court opinion in Barrett v. Rosenthal, never provides a single crisp definition of “user” but seemed to contemplate that merely being online qualified. Some minor cases possibly read “user” more narrowly, but I think the dominant line of cases gives “user” an expansive definition.
From a doctrinal standpoint, I think the broad reading of 230′s application makes a lot of sense. The cases over the past 13+ years have taught us that 230(c)(1) can be distilled into a simple syllogism: unless the plaintiff’s claim fits into one of the statutory exclusions (IP, federal crimes, ECPA), A isn’t liable for third party B’s online content or actions. Period.
In the FTC’s Example #5, A is the advertiser and B is the blogger. Applying the same syllogism as above, the advertiser can’t liable for the blogger’s online content or actions. Period.
The fact that the advertiser paid the blogger to write the content doesn’t change my analysis one bit. For example, in the 1998 Blumenthal v. Drudge case, AOL got a 230 defense for Matthew Drudge’s allegedly defamatory content, even though AOL paid $3,000 a month for Drudge’s columns and retained editorial control over the content. I’m pretty sure 230 has applied in other cases where the defendant paid for the content. If you can think of others, I’d appreciate the reminder.
Further, the payment doesn’t create a respondeat superior relationship between the advertiser and blogger. There is no credible argument that the blogger is the advertiser’s employee. I don’t think the example indicates an agency relationship because the advertiser lacks the requisite control over the blogger. PayPerPost’s mediation of the advertiser-blogger relationship further reinforces the lack of agency; indeed, the advertiser may not even be communicating directly with the blogger. And even if the blogger were the advertiser’s employee or agent, 230 still might apply for the blogger’s statements that exceed the advertiser’s authorization. See Delfino v. Agilent and the Higher Balance case.
If you don’t like the broad reading of “users” (even though I think it is defensible under the case law), then go back to my first explanation that both the advertiser and blogger are “users” of the interactive computer service provided by the blog advertising service provider (e.g., PayPerPost). This argument works just fine too.
Applicable 230 Precedent
Unfortunately, I can’t point to many 230 cases applying the immunization to circumstances where the defendant did not host or republish the allegedly tortious content. Most 230 cases involve a provider’s liability for its user’s content or actions (the “paradigmatic” 230 case).
In contrast, we don’t see many cases interpreting the user defense, but then again, those lawsuits may be so tenuous anyway that they are rarely brought. For example, I could not find any specific cases applying 230 to the linking situation I critiqued in my SEC comments.
Even without any obvious precedent, I think the statute on its face leads easily to the conclusion that advertisers can’t be liable for bloggers’ independent posts. As I indicated in my initial post, I don’t even see that as a close case under 230.
One reasonably close precedent, the Subway v. Quiznos case, hasn’t reached a solid 230 ruling yet. In that case, Quiznos reposted some user-created advertising videos, and Subway contended that the videos constituted false advertising. The court rejected Quiznos’ 230 defense solely on the grounds that it was raised in a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, which the court said was too early. (This same issue arose in Barnes v. Yahoo, where the Ninth Circuit initially agreed with this court and then withdrew that portion of its opinion). Although 230 didn’t apply at the 12(b)(6) stage, could Quiznos claim 230 for the videos at a later stage of the proceeding? I think it can, even if it “adopted” the user-generated videos by republishing them, unless it actually authored the statements that are deemed false advertising. For examples where a republisher can claim 230 for content is putatively “endorses” through its republication, see, e.g., the Barrett case, the Batzel case, the Tefft case (one of the minor cases narrowly interpreting “user”), the D’Alonzo case and the Furber case. I’m sure I could find others.
I think the FTC’s Example #5 is an even easier 230 case than Quiznos’ situation. Unlike Quiznos, the advertiser in Example #5 never republished the blog post or even signaled any adoption of or agreement with the post. With such a tenuous relationship between the advertiser and the blogger, the FTC’s overreaching—and the role 230 plays in preventing that overreaching—is even clearer.
As the old expression goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So perhaps I’m just such a 230 enthusiast that I’m finding it in places it doesn’t belong.
However, having read many dozen 230 cases over the past 13 years, I’ve formed the strong opinion that courts treat 230 as saying A isn’t liable for third party B’s online content. If you accept that proposition (and resist the temptation to manufacture provisos and qualifications that don’t actually exist in the cases), then it should be clear why 230 preempts Example #5—because that’s exactly what the FTC is trying to do.
UPDATE: Paul Levy disagrees with my analysis in this post.