On September 21, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it has joined the Federal Communications Commission in signing a renewed memorandum of understanding (MOU) between public authorities who are members of the Unsolicited Communications Enforcement Network (UCENet). The MOU aims to promote cross-border collaboration to combat unsolicited communications, including email and text spam, scams, and illegal telemarketing.
“The FTC is committed to using all of its tools to fight robocalls and other unsolicited communications that try to prey on consumers,” said FTC attorney and Chair Lina M. Khan. “This scourge does not respect borders, and our recommitment to this MOU underscores the importance of international communication and cooperation to combat this problem.”
UCENet members agreed to renew and make evergreen the MOU, a non-binding instrument which the FTC and its partners signed in 2016.
The 2016 MOU was aimed at facilitating information sharing, capacity building, and enforcement assistance among the partners. For the past seven years, it also has facilitated communication about emerging threats and complaint trends related to spam, scams, and illegal telemarketing.
The UCENET MOU is part of the FTC’s continuing to work to fight harms that can arise from unwanted messages. According to the announcement, unsolicited communications in the form of illegal and spoofed robocalls, text messages, and emails are often the source of scams that harm millions of consumers in the United States each year. The revised MOU also has been signed by UCENet partners in Canada,
FTC advertising compliance and defense attorney Richard B. Newman was recently quoted in an article for Cybersecurity Law Report titled “Xbox and Alexa COPPA Case Lessons: Avatars, Biometrics and Other New Expectations.”
The article discusses the FTC’s recent privacy enforcement run and how it reinforces regulators’ expanding expectations for companies using video and audio recordings, smart devices and AI. The article further discusses recent agency settlements with Microsoft, Amazon and educational technology provider Edmodo that drew $51 million in penalties, broke new ground on the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule enforcement and signaled new expectations for all companies’ privacy compliance.
In discussing how COPPA is a tool for financial penalties and how these cases highlight the value of COPPA enforcement to the FTC versus its Section 5 authority under the FTC Act, Mr. Newman noted that “[i]n Amazon, obviously, the $25‑million settlement amount leaps out” for Alexa’s improper retention of voice recordings in violation of COPPA.
Mr. Newman further shared that “not just the FTC, but state attorneys general are becoming increasingly interested in expanding regulation of the use and sharing of consumer data, including geolocation data.”
While the FTC contests the issue at the federal level, data brokers and those that interact with them should expect that the plaintiffs’ class action bar and state AGs may lodge claims under state “little FTC acts” that echo the FTC’s July 2022 statement about geolocation data or the biometric one,
Florida has become the latest state – approximately ten – to enact a comprehensive privacy law. On June 6, 2023, Governor DeSantis recently signed SB 262 which includes some new privacy provisions. Florida also recently passed a child privacy law that is notably similar to California’s Age Appropriation Act that becomes effective July 1, 2024.
The Florida Digital Bill of Rights Law
Covered entities (“controllers”) include those that earn $1 billion in global gross annual revenues and either (i) receive 50% of gross annual revenue from online ad sales; (ii) operate a consumer smart speaker and voice command service with an integrated virtual assistant through a cloud-connected service and hands-free verbal activation; or (iii) operate an app store or digital distribution platform that has at least 250,000 apps available for download.
Note, however, that non-covered entities that serve as data processors for covered entities may potentially be impacted. More specifically, such processors are required to support a covered entities’ compliance efforts and to maintain responsible contracts that include provisions governing data processing. In fact, the new law sets forth specific requirements that must be included in such data processing agreements.
Not unlike other states, the Florida Digital Bill of Rights Law has numerous exemptions and applies to consumer information. Exemptions include entities covered by HIPAA (and business associates), financial institutions and affiliates (subject to GLBA), non-profits, certain government entities, and higher education institutions. There are also specific data exemptions.
On May 23, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission hosted a national workshop designed to consider the current state of recycling practices and recycling-related advertising.
This follows an FTC announcement in December 2022 that the agency was seeking public comment on potential updates and changes to its ‘Green Guides’ for the use of environment marketing claims. The Green Guides help marketers avoid making environmental marketing claims that are unfair or deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act.
Updates to ‘Green Guides’
In December 2022, the FTC announced that it would seek public comment on potential updates to its “Green Guides” for the use of environmental marketing claims. FTC attorneys seek to update the Green Guides based on increasing consumer interest in buying environmentally friendly products. The comment period was extended through April 24, 2023.
“Consumers are increasingly conscious of how the products they buy affect the environment, and depend on marketers’ environmental claims to be truthful,” said FTC lawyer and Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Samuel Levine. “We look forward to this review process, and will make any updates necessary to ensure the Green Guides provide current, accurate information about consumer perception of environmental benefit claims. This will both help marketers make truthful claims and consumers find the products they seek.”
The Green Guides were first issued in 1992 and were revised in 1996, 1998, and 2012. They provide guidance on environmental marketing claims, including how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how marketers can substantiate these environmental claims to avoid deceiving consumers.
The Florida Telephone Solicitation Act (“FTSA”) has long been criticized for numerous reasons, including an overly broad and vague autodialer definition. Florida’s Governor recently signed HB 761, which makes significant, telemarketer friendly changes, to the FTSA (Fla. Stat. § 501.059).
Fewer Types of Telemarketing Equipment Covered
The amendments narrow the types of telemarketing equipment covered by the statute.
For example, prior the the amendments, autodialing restrictions applied to “automated system[s] for the selection or dialing of telephone numbers.” Now, the amended autodialing restrictions apply only to “automated system[s] for the selection and dialing of telephone numbers.” The foregoing effectively eliminates the legal argument that a dialing or texting platform falls under the statute even if the calling party manually selects or dials a telephone number to be called or texted.
Caveat, the amended version of the statutes continues to restrict “the playing of a recorded message when a connection is completed to a number called, or the transmission of a prerecorded voicemail.”
Text Message Notice and Cure Period
The revised statute provides for a fifteen (15) day notice and cure period before a plaintiff is permitted to initiate formal legal action. For example, by responding “STOP” to message.
Expanded Definition of “Signature”
The modified statute has a broadened definition of “signature” and includes “checking a box” and “responding affirmatively to receiving text messages.” Digital signatures may be acceptable to obtain prior express written consent provided that “such form of signature is recognized as a valid signature under applicable federal law or state contract law.”
Florida Telephone Solicitation Act class action cases that are not certified prior to the effective date of the statutory amendments are subject to the retroactive application of the new legislation.
As previously blogged about here, the FCC recently proposed a rule that would turn the lead generation on its head. The proposed new rule goes quite a bit further than simply requiring wireless carriers to block texts from illegitimate numbers.
In addition to carrier investigation and blocking obligations, as well as an extension of DNC protections to text messages, the FCC proposes:
“…to ban the practice of obtaining a single consumer consent as grounds for delivering calls and text messages from multiple marketers on subjects beyond the scope of the original consent.”
In an illustration of the issue, Company A describes a website that purports to enable consumers to comparison shop for insurance. The website sought consumer consent for calls and texts from insurance companies and other various entities, including Company A’s ‘partner companies.’ The ‘partner companies’ were listed in a hyperlink on the web page (i.e., they were not displayed on the website without clicking on the link) and the list of ‘partner companies’ included both insurance companies and other entities that did not appear to be related to insurance.”
Public Knowledge, an influential non-profit Washington, D.C.-based public interest group argues that lead generators and data brokers use hyperlinked lists to harvest consumer telephone numbers and consent agreements on a website and pass that information to telemarketers and scam callers. Commentors have argued that the telemarketer that obtains the consumer’s contact information from the lead generator may believe that it has the consumer’s prior express consent,
The Federal Trade Commission recently announced that it has taken action to stop an alleged interconnected web of operations purportedly responsible for delivering tens of millions of unwanted Voice Over Internet Protocol and ringless voicemail bogus debt service robocalls to consumers nationwide.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed the complaint in federal court on the FTC’s behalf.
The DOJ also filed a proposed consent order against one of the companies and individuals involved in the operation, which would, if approved by the court, bar them from making further misrepresentations about debt relief services and ordering them to comply with the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
“This case targets the ecosystem of companies who perpetrate illegal telemarketing to cheat American consumers who are struggling financially,” said FTC lawyer Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC will continue to take aggressive action to protect consumers from the scourge of illegal robocalls.”
“The Department of Justice is committed to stopping individuals and companies from making illegal robocalls and peddling predatory debt relief services,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We will continue to work with the FTC to enforce the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule against those who use misleading sales tactics to prey on consumers.”
According to the complaint, Stratics Networks, Inc.’s outbound calling service enabled its clients to route and transmit millions of robocalls using VoIP technology.
Lead generators beware. The FTC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would turn the lead generation industry on its head.
Amongst numerous items currently on the FCC’s agenda, there is discussion on closing the “lead generator” loophole.
The FCC first issued a Report and Order requiring mobile wireless providers to block text messages from numbers on a reasonable Do Not Originate list, which includes numbers that purport to be from invalid, unallocated or unused North American Numbering Plan numbers, and numbers for which the subscriber to the number has requested that texts purporting to originate from that number be blocked. The FCC already requires similar blocking of voice calls by gateway providers.
The Report and Order would also ensure that any erroneous text blocking can be reported to the provider doing the blocking by requiring mobile wireless providers to maintain a single point of contact for texters to report erroneously blocked texts. This single point of contact is already required for voice call blocking.
Even more significant for lead generators is that the FCC has issued a NPRM that would require carriers to “investigate and potentially block texts from a sender after they are on notice from the Commission that the sender is transmitting suspected illegal texts…”
Additionally, the FCC has proposed an extension of DNC protections to text messages.
On January 13, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission announced that as a result of a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit, investment advice company WealthPress has agreed to a proposed court order that would require it to refund more than $1.2 million to consumers and pay a $500,000 civil penalty for allegedly deceiving consumers with purportedly “outlandish and false claims about their services.”
The case marks the first time that the FTC has collected civil penalties against a company that received the Notice of Penalty Offenses regarding money-making opportunities sent last October, and the first civil penalties for violations of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. (ROSCA)
“We’ve brought several cases this year against companies making false earnings claims, and we won’t hesitate to bring more,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “WealthPress is now paying the price for deceiving its customers and ignoring our Notice of Penalty Offenses on money-making claims.”
The FTC’s complaint against WealthPress and its owners, Roger Scott and Conor Lynch, alleges that the company used deceptive claims to sell consumers investment advising services—often claiming that the services’ recommendations were based on a specific “system” or “strategy” created by a purported expert. The company charged consumers hundreds or even thousands of dollars for access to these services.
WealthPress sold consumers on their services with purported false claims about the likelihood consumers would make money by following the recommended trades,
On December 6, 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation intended to crack down on unwanted telemarketing calls.
Legislation (S.8450-B/A.8319-C) requires telemarketers to give customers the option to automatically be added to the company’s do-not-call list at the beginning of certain telemarketing calls, right after the telemarketer’s name and solicitor’s name are provided, and before addressing the purpose of the call, etc.
Caveat, telemarketers that utilize pre-recorded messages must ensure that an automated means exists for consumers to have their telephone numbers suppressed. Consult with a state attorney general (AG) defense lawyer about the applicability of the new legislation, adjustment of scripts, and the implementation of appropriate disclosures and suppression protocols.
We are dialing up our efforts to give New Yorkers a break from unsolicited telemarketing calls,” Governor Hochul said. “For too long, New Yorkers have dealt with these nuisance calls, not knowing they can avoid these interactions by being added to a telemarketer’s do-not-call list. This new legislation will protect New Yorkers from receiving frustrating, unwanted calls by better providing information on do-not-call lists.”
Under existing law (Section 399-Z), telemarketers are required to inform individuals that they may request to be added to their company’s do-not-call list. However, not at the beginning. According to the NY Attornehy General’s office, consumers usually hang up before a telemarketer or recording has mentioned the do-not-call list, allowing telemarketers to continue calling them again and again.
About This Blog and Hinch Newman’s Advertising + Marketing Practice
Hinch Newman LLP’s advertising and marketing practice includes successfully resolving some of the highest-profile Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general digital advertising and telemarketing investigations and enforcement actions. The firm possesses superior knowledge and deep legal experience in the areas of advertising, marketing, lead generation, promotions, e-commerce, privacy and intellectual property law. Through these advertising and marketing law updates, Hinch Newman provides commentary, news and analysis on issues and trends concerning developments of interest to digital marketers, including FTC and state attorneys general advertising compliance, civil investigative demands (CIDs), and administrative/judicial process. This blog is sponsored by Hinch Newman LLP.