March 08, 2010
Crowdsourced Ads May Not Be Protected by 47 USC 230--Subway v. Quiznos
By Eric Goldman
As a long-time vegetarian (over a quarter-century), I find America's obsession with "more meat" competitions simultaneously amusing and repulsive. On my personal blog, I have routinely chronicled the "burger wars" between heartland restaurants trying to outdo each other by offering bigger and bigger burgers. As far as I know, the current high-water mark is the Beer Barrel Main Event Charity Burger, a 123 pound burger that includes 80 pounds of meat. See the photo. If you're one of those people who thinks a burger can never have too much meat, good luck working on that bad boy.
Today's post involves subway sandwiches instead of burgers, but it turns out that subway sandwich restaurants’ competition over claims of having more meat is no less stiff. Quiznos kicked off the war in 2006 by launching a "double meat" line of sandwiches. Quiznos ran two TV ads comparing the meat in its sandwiches to Subway's and set up a website soliciting individuals to make and submit their own comparative digital video ads. Subway was not amused and ultimately filed a seventh amended complaint (!) over Quiznos' ad campaigns. (What a patient judge).
The parties hotly contested every aspect of the litigation, and Rebecca does a thorough recap of the lengthy ruling. I'm going to focus on the court’s discussion of the crowdsourced video ads published on Quiznos' ad campaign website, which Quiznos defended on 47 USC 230 grounds.
Citing the MCW v. Badbusinessbureau case from 2004, the court says "the critical inquiry with respect to CDA immunity in this case is whether the Defendants merely published information provided by third parties or instead were actively responsible for the creation and development of disparaging representations about Subway contained in the contestant videos."
The MCW decision was questionable even at its time, but it's bizarre to see the court reach into history for this obscure, archaic, unpublished and geographically distant (it was a TX precedent being cited in a CT court) district court precedent. To do this, the court bypasses dozens of more recent—and more thoughtful—cases, including the multiple Ripoff Report cases that have expressly and implicitly rejected the MCW case. A more natural citation would have been the Roommates.com case, which also referenced legal distinctions between active/passive websites similar to the legal standard quoted above. However, if the court had followed Roommates.com, it almost certainly would have ruled for the defense, as Quiznos didn't require illegality or even channel users towards illegality. (Rebecca makes the same point). Therefore, I'm baffled how the court got to this legal standard citing this legal precedent.
Using this odd legal standard, the court says it's up to the jury to decide if Quiznos just exercised traditional editorial control or impermissibly "actively participated in creating or developing the third-party content submitted to the Contest website."
Unquestionably, sending this case to a jury is a 230 loss, but how bad is unclear. We'll never find out what the jury would do with the case because the parties promptly settled the case after this ruling. However, a plaintiff's ability to hold a case open through trial, rather than having it disposed of earlier in the proceedings, would itself represent a significant win for plaintiffs--it would mean plaintiffs can get discovery to fish for embarrassing facts, force the defense to incur lots of litigation costs, and get a chance to tell their sob story before a jury. (FWIW, I am not aware of any 230 case that has ever reached a jury—am I forgetting something?) Nevertheless, I think very few courts will follow this precedent given the plethora of more persuasive precedents and the fact that Quiznos' crowdsourced ads were just one part of Quiznos' larger allegedly false ad campaign. Therefore, I don't expect this 230 loss to spread to many other cases.
I also don't think this case shines much light on the legitimacy of crowdsourcing ads. There's no reason to believe that crowdsourced ads are per se problematic. At the same time, if the advertiser uses the ads offline, clearly the advertiser "adopts" the ad and takes full responsibility for its contents. If the advertiser only publishes the ad online, 230 might be available but the advertiser still might tread cautiously due to the FTC Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines, which basically ignores 230 and holds advertisers liable for certain types of third party advertisements anyway. I think 230 may nullify this part of the FTC guidelines, but most advertisers would rather not tangle with the FTC to establish the deficiencies in the FTC's thinking. As a result, I expect most advertisers will vet most crowdsourced ads, even if they only publish them only, as if the advertiser is legally responsible for the ads and not protected by 230.
BTW, the Subway v. Quiznos lawsuit isn't the only litigation over subway restaurants' claims of double meat. In an apparently unrelated lawsuit, last month a class action suit was filed over Blimpie's "Super Stacked" sandwich for overclaiming that it had double meat.
I confess some schadenfreude when I see lawsuits against meat pushers for overhyping meat quantities. I would not shed a tear if the meat pushers lock up each other in litigation death struggles and sue each other to oblivion. Of course, consumers can facilitate that outcome by refusing to patronize vendors who "compete" with each other by encouraging us to overconsume the Earth's resources.
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