Pushing Ad Networks Out of Business: Yershov v. Gannett and the War Against Online Platforms

Kristian Stout —  10 May 2016

The lifecycle of a law is a curious one; born to fanfare, a great solution to a great problem, but ultimately doomed to age badly as lawyers seek to shoehorn wholly inappropriate technologies and circumstances into its ambit. The latest chapter in the book of badly aging laws comes to us courtesy of yet another dysfunctional feature of our political system: the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process.

In 1988, President Reagan nominated Judge Bork for a spot on the US Supreme Court. During the confirmation process following his nomination, a reporter was able to obtain a list of videos he and his family had rented from local video rental stores (You remember those, right?). In response to this invasion of privacy — by a reporter whose intention was to publicize and thereby (in some fashion) embarrass or “expose” Judge Bork — Congress enacted the Video Privacy Protection Act (“VPPA”).

In short, the VPPA makes it illegal for a “video tape service provider” to knowingly disclose to third parties any “personally identifiable information” in connection with the viewing habits of a “consumer” who uses its services. Left as written and confined to the scope originally intended for it, the Act seems more or less fine. However, over the last few years, plaintiffs have begun to use the Act as a weapon with which to attack common Internet business models in a manner wholly out of keeping with drafters’ intent.

And with a decision that promises to be a windfall for hungry plaintiff’s attorneys everywhere, the First Circuit recently allowed a plaintiff, Alexander Yershov, to make it past a 12(b)(6) motion on a claim that Gannett violated the VPPA with its  USA Today Android mobile app.

What’s in a name (or Android ID) ?

The app in question allowed Mr. Yershov to view videos without creating an account, providing his personal details, or otherwise subscribing (in the generally accepted sense of the term) to USA Today’s content. What Gannett did do, however, was to provide to Adobe Systems the Android ID and GPS location data associated with Mr. Yershov’s use of the app’s video content.

In interpreting the VPPA in a post-Blockbuster world, the First Circuit panel (which, apropos of nothing, included retired Justice Souter) had to wrestle with whether Mr. Yershov counts as a “subscriber,” and to what extent an Android ID and location information count as “personally identifying information” under the Act. Relying on the possibility that Adobe might be able to infer the identity of the plaintiff given its access to data from other web properties, and given the court’s rather gut-level instinct that an app user is a “subscriber,” the court allowed the plaintiff to survive the 12(b)(6) motion.

The PII point is the more arguable of the two, as the statutory language is somewhat vague. Under the Act, PIII “includes information which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific video materials or services from a video tape service provider.” On this score the court decided that GPS data plus an Android ID (or each alone — it wasn’t completely clear) could constitute information protected under the Act (at least for purposes of a 12(b)(6) motion):

The statutory term “personally identifiable information” is awkward and unclear. The definition of that term… adds little clarity beyond training our focus on the question whether the information identifies the person who obtained the video…. Nevertheless, the language reasonably conveys the point that PII is not limited to information that explicitly names a person.

OK (maybe). But where the court goes off the rails is in its determination that an Android ID, GPS data, or a list of videos is, in itself, enough to identify anyone.

It might be reasonable to conclude that Adobe could use that information in combination with other information it collects from yet other third parties (fourth parties?) in order to build up a reliable, personally identifiable profile. But the statute’s language doesn’t hang on such a combination. Instead, the court’s reasoning finds potential liability by reading this exact sort of prohibition into the statute:

Adobe takes this and other information culled from a variety of sources to create user profiles comprised of a given user’s personal information, online behavioral data, and device identifiers… These digital dossiers provide Adobe and its clients with “an intimate look at the different types of materials consumed by the individual” … While there is certainly a point at which the linkage of information to identity becomes too uncertain, or too dependent on too much yet-to-be-done, or unforeseeable detective work, here the linkage, as plausibly alleged, is both firm and readily foreseeable to Gannett.

Despite its hedging about uncertain linkages, the court’s reasoning remains contingent on an awful lot of other moving parts — something not found in either the text of the law, nor the legislative history of the Act.

The information sharing identified by the court is in no way the sort of simple disclosure of PII that easily identifies a particular person in the way that, say, Blockbuster Video would have been able to do in 1988 with disclosure of its viewing lists.  Yet the court purports to find a basis for its holding in the abstract nature of the language in the VPPA:

Had Congress intended such a narrow and simple construction [as specifying a precise definition for PII], it would have had no reason to fashion the more abstract formulation contained in the statute.

Again… maybe. Maybe Congress meant to future-proof the provision, and didn’t want the statute construed as being confined to the simple disclosure of name, address, phone number, and so forth. I doubt, though, that it really meant to encompass the sharing of any information that might, at some point, by some unknown third parties be assembled into a profile that, just maybe if you squint at it hard enough, will identify a particular person and their viewing habits.

Passive Subscriptions?

What seems pretty clear, however, is that the court got it wrong when it declared that Mr. Yershov was a “subscriber” to USA Today by virtue of simply downloading an app from the Play Store.

The VPPA prohibits disclosure of a “consumer’s” PII — with “consumer” meaning “any renter, purchaser, or subscriber of goods or services from a video tape service provider.” In this case (as presumably will happen in most future VPPA cases involving free apps and websites), the plaintiff claims that he is a “subscriber” to a “video tape” service.

The court built its view of “subscriber” predominantly on two bases: (1) you don’t need to actually pay anything to count as a subscriber (with which I agree), and (2) that something about installing an app that can send you push notifications is different enough than frequenting a website, that a user, no matter how casual, becomes a “subscriber”:

When opened for the first time, the App presents a screen that seeks the user’s permission for it to “push” or display notifications on the device. After choosing “Yes” or “No,” the user is directed to the App’s main user interface.

The court characterized this connection between USA Today and Yershov as “seamless” — ostensibly because the app facilitates push notifications to the end user.

Thus, simply because it offers an app that can send push notifications to users, and because this app sometimes shows videos, a website or Internet service — in this case, an app portal for a newspaper company — becomes a “video tape service,” offering content to “subscribers.” And by sharing information in a manner that is nowhere mentioned in the statute and that on its own is not capable of actually identifying anyone, the company suddenly becomes subject to what will undoubtedly be an avalanche of lawsuits (at least in the first circuit).

Preposterous as this may seem on its face, it gets worse. Nothing in the court’s opinion is limited to “apps,” and the “logic” would seem to apply to the general web as well (whether the “seamless” experience is provided by push notifications or some other technology that facilitates tighter interaction with users). But, rest assured, the court believes that

[B]y installing the App on his phone, thereby establishing seamless access to an electronic version of USA Today, Yershov established a relationship with Gannett that is materially different from what would have been the case had USA Today simply remained one of millions of sites on the web that Yershov might have accessed through a web browser.

Thank goodness it’s “materially” different… although just going by the reasoning in this opinion, I don’t see how that can possibly be true.

What happens when web browsers can enable push notifications between users and servers? Well, I guess we’ll find out soon because major browsers now support this feature. Further, other technologies — like websockets — allow for continuous two-way communication between users and corporate sites. Does this change the calculus? Does it meet the court’s “test”? If so, the court’s exceedingly vague reasoning provides little guidance (and a whole lot of red meat for lawsuits).

To bolster its view that apps are qualitatively different than web sites with regard to their delivery to consumers, the court asks “[w]hy, after all, did Gannett develop and seek to induce downloading of the App?” I don’t know, because… cell phones?

And this bit of “reasoning” does nothing for the court’s opinion, in fact. Gannett undertook development of a web site in the first place because some cross-section of the public was interested in reading news online (and that was certainly the case for any electronic distribution pre-2007). No less, consumers have increasingly been moving toward using mobile devices for their online activities. Though it’s a debatable point, apps can often provide a better user experience than that provided by a mobile browser. Regardless, the line between “app” and “web site” is increasingly a blurry one, especially on mobile devices, and with the proliferation of HTML5 and frameworks like Google’s Progressive Web Apps, the line will only grow more indistinct. That Gannett was seeking to provide the public with an app has nothing to do with whether it intended to develop a more “intimate” relationship with mobile app users than it has with web users.

The 11th Circuit, at least, understands this. In Ellis v. Cartoon Network, it held that a mere user of an app — without more — could not count as a “subscriber” under the VPPA:

The dictionary definitions of the term “subscriber” we have quoted above have a common thread. And that common thread is that “subscription” involves some type of commitment, relationship, or association (financial or otherwise) between a person and an entity. As one district court succinctly put it: “Subscriptions involve some or [most] of the following [factors]: payment, registration, commitment, delivery, [expressed association,] and/or access to restricted content.”

The Eleventh Circuit’s point is crystal clear, and I’m not sure how the First Circuit failed to appreciate it (particularly since it was the district court below in the Yershov case that the Eleventh Circuit was citing). Instead, the court got tied up in asking whether or not a payment was required to constitute a “subscription.” But that’s wrong. What’s needed is some affirmative step – something more than just downloading an app, and certainly something more than merely accessing a web site.

Without that step — a “commitment, relationship, or association (financial or otherwise) between a person and an entity” — the development of technology that simply offers a different mode of interaction between users and content promises to transform the VPPA into a tremendously powerful weapon in the hands of eager attorneys, and a massive threat to the advertising-based business models that have enabled the growth of the web.

How could this possibly not apply to websites?

In fact, there is no way this opinion won’t be picked up by plaintiff’s attorneys in suits against web sites that allow ad networks to collect any information on their users. Web sites may not have access to exact GPS data (for now), but they do have access to fairly accurate location data, cookies, and a host of other data about their users. And with browser-based push notifications and other technologies being developed to create what the court calls a “seamless” experience for users, any user of a web site will count as a “subscriber” under the VPPA. The potential damage to the business models that have funded the growth of the Internet is hard to overstate.

There is hope, however.

Hulu faced a similar challenge over the last few years arising out of its collection of viewer data on its platform and the sharing of that data with third-party ad services in order to provide better targeted and, importantly, more user-relevant marketing. Last year it actually won a summary judgment motion on the basis that it had no way of knowing that Facebook (the third-party with which it was sharing data) would reassemble the data in order to identify particular users and their viewing habits. Nevertheless, Huu has previously lost motions on the subscriber and PII issues.

Hulu has, however, previously raised one issue in its filings on which the district court punted, but that could hold the key to putting these abusive litigations to bed.

The VPPA provides a very narrowly written exception to the prohibition on information sharing when such sharing is “incident to the ordinary course of business” of the “video tape service provider.” “Ordinary course of business” in this context means  “debt collection activities, order fulfillment, request processing, and the transfer of ownership.” In one of its motions, Hulu argued that

the section shows that Congress took into account that providers use third parties in their business operations and “‘allows disclosure to permit video tape service providers to use mailing houses, warehouses, computer services, and similar companies for marketing to their customers. These practices are called ‘order fulfillment’ and ‘request processing.’

The district court didn’t grant Hulu summary judgment on the issue, essentially passing on the question. But in 2014 the Seventh Circuit reviewed a very similar set of circumstances in Sterk v. Redbox and found that the exception applied. In that case Redbox had a business relationship with Stream, a third party that provided Redbox with automated customer service functions. The Seventh Circuit found that information sharing in such a relationship fell within Redbox’s “ordinary course of business”, and so Redbox was entitled to summary judgment on the VPPA claims against it.

This is essentially the same argument that Hulu was making. Third-party ad networks most certainly provide a service to corporations that serve content over the web. Hulu, Gannett and every other publisher on the web surely could provide their own ad platforms on their own properties. But by doing so they would lose the economic benefits that come from specialization and economies of scale. Thus, working with a third-party ad network pretty clearly replaces the “order fulfillment” and “request processing” functions of a content platform.

The Big Picture

And, stepping back for a moment, it’s important to take in the big picture. The point of the VPPA was to prevent public disclosures that would chill speech or embarrass individuals; the reporter in 1987 set out to expose or embarrass Judge Bork.  This is the situation the VPPA’s drafters had in mind when they wrote the Act. But the VPPA was most emphatically not designed to punish Internet business models — especially of a sort that was largely unknown in 1988 — that serve the interests of consumers.

The 1988 Senate report on the bill, for instance, notes that “[t]he bill permits the disclosure of personally identifiable information under appropriate and clearly defined circumstances. For example… companies may sell mailing lists that do not disclose the actual selections of their customers.”  Moreover, the “[Act] also allows disclosure to permit video tape service providers to use mailing houses, warehouses, computer services, and similar companies for marketing to their customers. These practices are called ‘order fulfillment’ and ‘request processing.’”

Congress plainly contemplated companies being able to monetize their data. And this just as plainly includes the common practice in automated tracking systems on the web today that use customers’ viewing habits to serve them with highly personalized web experiences.

Sites that serve targeted advertising aren’t in the business of embarrassing consumers or abusing their information by revealing it publicly. And, most important, nothing in the VPPA declares that information sharing is prohibited if third party partners could theoretically construct a profile of users. The technology to construct these profiles simply didn’t exist in 1988, and there is nothing in the Act or its legislative history to support the idea that the VPPA should be employed against the content platforms that outsource marketing to ad networks.

What would make sense is to actually try to fit modern practice in with the design and intent of the VPPA. If, for instance, third-party ad networks were using the profiles they created to extort, blackmail, embarrass, or otherwise coerce individuals, the practice certainly falls outside of course of business, and should be actionable.

But as it stands, much like the TCPA, the VPPA threatens to become a costly technological anachronism. Future courts should take the lead of the Eleventh and Seventh circuits, and make the law operate in the way it was actually intended. Gannett still has the opportunity to appeal for an en banc hearing, and after that for cert before the Supreme Court. But the circuit split this presents is the least of our worries. If this issue is not resolved in a way that permits platforms to continue to outsource their marketing efforts as they do today, the effects on innovation could be drastic.

Web platforms — which includes much more than just online newspapers — depend upon targeted ads to support their efforts. This applies to mobile apps as well. The “freemium” model has eclipsed the premium model for apps — a fact that expresses the preferences of both consumers at large as well as producers. Using the VPPA as a hammer to smash these business models will hurt everyone except, of course, for plaintiff’s attorneys.

Kristian Stout

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Kristian Stout is the Associate Director for Innovation Policy at the International Center for Law and Economics (ICLE). As a technology professional and entrepreneur for over ten years, Kristian’s scholarship is influenced by a practical understanding of the challenges facing innovators in the modern economy. Kristian has previously been a lecturer in the computer science department of Rutgers University, is frequently invited to speak on law and technology topics, and has been published in law journals and legal treatises. Kristian is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is a partner at A&S Technologies, a software services firm, and sits on the board of CodedByKids, a nonprofit organization that provides STEM education to underprivileged children.