Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy Services: The Case that Spawned Section 230

By: Mark Stepanyuk

The United States led the world in internet usage throughout the 1990s and “[a]t the time of the Dot-com-crash less than 7% of the world was online.” Traversing this previously uncharted territory en masse necessitated a promulgation of rules that would govern the new frontier. Naturally, those rules emerged to conform with existing legal standards. Wrapped up in this context is a story about how the firm started by “The Wolf of Wall Street”, also known as Jordan Belfort, would have a hand in bringing about the existence of arguably the most influential legal rule shaping the internet to this day. 

Enter Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy Services

Jordan Belfort founded Stratton Oakmont in 1986 as a brokerage firm specializing in trading “over-the-counter” securities. The world became familiar with this story when Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed a lecherous and drug-addled Belfort in the 2013 academy-award nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street

Prodigy Services was an early online service network that provided its subscribers access to various information services such as bulletin boards where third parties exchanged information. In the early-to-mid-1990s, Prodigy was considered one of the major players in the  information services space providers alongside CompuServe

Prodigy, unlike CompuServe, had “held itself out” as exercising editorial control over the content of its computer bulletin boards. One of Prodigy’s bulletin boards was called Money Talk, a popular forum where members would post and discuss financial matters. Prodigy contracted with Board Leaders (or moderators or mods in today’s parlance) to, among other things, oversee and participate in board discussions.

On October 23rd and 25th in 1994, an unidentified individual posted to the Money Talk bulletin board claiming that Stratton Oakmont committed criminal and fraudulent acts in connection with an IPO that it was involved in. The anonymous poster made statements claiming that the offering was “major criminal fraud” and “100% criminal fraud.” The individual also posted that Stratton Oakmont was a “cult of brokers who either lie for a living or get fired.” 

Stratton Oakmont and Daniel Porush—the individual that Jonah Hill’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street film was loosely based on—filed suit against Prodigy in the New York Supreme Court, the state trial court, alleging libel, among other things.

On a partial summary judgment motion brought by Stratton, the court considered Prodigy’s own statements and went through the classical libel analysis to determine whether Prodigy was a “publisher” or “distributor,” where if Prodigy was deemed a ‘publisher,’ then it would be as if they themselves had posted the allegedly libelous statements. By the way, those statements later turned out to be true

The court concluded that Prodigy was indeed a “publisher.” Reasoning that Prodigy “held itself out to the public and its members as controlling the content of [Money Talk] …,” and, by contracting with the mods, “actively utilize[ed] technology and manpower to delete notes from its computer bulletin boards on the basis of offensiveness and ‘bad taste[.]’” 

The court distinguished this holding from a 1991 case involving CompuServe four years earlier. There, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed a libel case on the basis that CompuServe was a “distributor” (where they would only be liable if they knew or had reason to know of the libel) Unlike Prodigy, CompuServe did not review any content before it was posted to its bulletin boards. The court reasoned that, without knowledge of the libel, CompuServe would not be liable. 

Legislative Reaction to the Stratton Oakmont Case

Some legislators thought the results in Stratton Oakmont and the CompuServe case were backwards. Chris Cox (R-CA) stated that the “[t]he perverse incentive this case created was clear: any provider of interactive computer services should avoid even modest efforts to moderate the content on its site.” After seeing a Wall Street Journal article about the case, Cox reached out to Ron Wyden (D-OR) to work on the bill that would later become Section 230 in an effort to address these “perverse incentives.” This effort initially culminated in the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act. The bill was enacted as part of the “Communications Decency Act,” (CDA) but when the rest of the CDA was struck down on first amendment grounds, section 230 survived. It can be found here

What does Stratton Oakmont Teach Us About Section 230 today?

Section 230 was passed largely to address those “perverse incentives” regarding moderation by online service providers. In 1990, Prodigy’s Director of Market Programs and Communications stated that “[Prodigy] make[s] no apology for pursuing a value system that reflects the culture of millions of American families we aspire to serve.” In the same NYT article, “social responsibility” was given as a reason to exercise editorial discretion—does that sound familiar? These seemingly recurring themes lead experts to opine that the current discourse about Section 230 is a bit phony—that it’s really a proxy for a conversation about the first amendment. The legal differences between a publisher and distributor are First Amendment distinctions, and since the enactment of Section 230, “that’s not really been an issue for the internet.” So functionally, those underlying First Amendment issues haven’t mattered as much in light of Section 230.

In the United States, we are still figuring out the rules of this relatively new frontier. Some folks argue that Section 230 helped make the digital economy what it is in the United States. Globally, the United States comes third in the total number of internet users with around 250 million, behind China (over 750 million) and India (over 390 million). Though here in the U.S., we will continue to arbitrate what speech should and should not be protected in light of the first amendment, it’s likely that the reasonability of how we approach an equilibrium will be a function of global influence and time. The internet rules of the future are certain to be impacted by technology (even more new frontiers) and the continued influence of globalization (i.e., different value systems, standards, and interpretations). 

Lawmakers Set Their Sights on Restricting Targeted Advertising

By: Laura Ames

Anyone who spends time online has encountered “surveillance advertising.” You enter something into your search engine, and immediately encounter ads for related products on other sites. Targeted advertising shows individual consumers certain ads based on inferences drawn from their interests, demographics, or other characteristics. This notion itself might not seem particularly harmful, but these data are accrued by tracking users’ activities online. Ad tech companies identify the internet-connected devices that consumers use to search, make purchases, use social media, watch videos, and otherwise interact with the digital world. Such companies then compile these data into user profiles, match the profiles with ads, and then place the ads where consumers will view them. In addition to basic privacy concerns, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) points to the potential for companies to hide personalized pricing from consumers or to promote unhealthy products and perpetuate fraud. Perhaps the largest concern is that the large stores of personal data that these companies maintain put consumers at risk of having their privacy invaded, identity theft, and malicious tracking.   

In response to these concerns, Democratic lawmakers unveiled the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act (BSSA) in an attempt to restrict the practice and under a general consensus that surveillance advertising is a threat to individual users as well as society at large. This move prompted opponents to argue that the BSSA is overly broad and will harm users, small businesses, and large tech companies alike.

What Does the BSSA Do? 

The BSSA is sponsored by Senator Cory Booker and Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Anna Eshoo. The bill bars digital advertisers from targeting their ads to users and also prohibits advertisers from targeting ads based on protected information like race, gender, religion, or other personal data purchased from data brokers. According to Senator Booker, surveillance advertising is “a predatory and invasive practice,” and the resulting hoarding of data not only “abuses privacy, but also drives the spread of misinformation, domestic extremism, racial division, and violence.”

The BSSA is broad, but it does provide several exceptions. Notably, it allows location-based targeting and context advertising, which occurs when companies match ads to the content of a particular site. The bill suggests delegating power to the FCC and state attorneys general to enforce violations. It also allows private citizens to bring civil actions against companies that violate the ban with monetary penalties up to $1,000 for negligent violations and up to $5,000 for “reckless, knowing, willful, or intentional” violations. The BSSA has support from many public organizations and a number of professors and academicians. Among several tech companies supporting the BSSA is the privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo. Its CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, opined that targeted ads are “dangerous to society” and pointed to DuckDuckGo as evidence that “you can run a successful and profitable ad-based business without building profiles on people.” 

The BSSA as Part of a Larger Legislative Agenda 

The BSSA is just one bill among a number of pieces of legislation aiming to restrict the power of large tech companies. Lawmakers have grown increasingly focused on bills regulating social media companies since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress in 2021. These bills target a wide variety of topics including antitrust, privacy, child protection, misinformation, and cryptocurrency regulation. Most of these bills appear to be rather long shots, however, because although the Biden administration supports tech industry reform, so many other issues are high priorities for it. Despite this hurdle, lawmakers are currently making a concerted push with these tech bills because the legislature’s attention will soon turn to the 2022 midterms. Additionally, Democrats, who have broader support for tech regulations, worry they could lose control of Congress. Senator Amy Klobuchar argued that once fall comes, “it will be very difficult to get things done because everything is about the election.” 

Tech and Marketing Companies Push Back

In general, tech companies tend to argue that targeted advertising benefits consumers and businesses alike. First, companies argue that this method allows users to see ads that are directly relevant to their needs or interests. Experts rebut this theory with the fact that in order to provide these relevant ads, tech companies must collect and store a great deal of data on users, which can put that data at risk of interference by third parties. Companies also argue that this legislation would drastically change their business models. Marketing and global media platform The Drum predicted that the BSSA “could have a massive impact on the ad industry as well as harm small businesses.” The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which includes over 700 brands, agencies, media firms, and tech companies, issued a statement strongly condemning the BSSA.  IAB CEO David Cohen argued that the BSSA would “effectively eliminate internet advertising… jeopardizing an estimated 17 million jobs primarily at small- and medium-sized businesses.” The IAB and others argue that targeted advertising is a cost-effective way to precisely advertise to particular users. However, the CFA points to evidence that contextual advertising, which is allowed under the BSSA, is more cost-effective for advertisers and provides greater revenue for publishers. 

Likelihood of the BSSA’s Success

In the past several years, there has been growing bipartisan support for bills addressing the increasing power of tech companies. This support would seem to suggest that these pieces of tech legislation have a better chance of advancing than other more controversial legislation. However, even with this broader support, dozens of bills addressing tech industry power have failed recently, leaving America behind a number of other countries in this area. One of the major problems impeding bipartisan progress is that while both parties tend to agree that Congress needs to address the tremendous power that tech companies have, they do not align on the methods the government should use to address the problem. For example, Democrats have called for measures that would compel companies to remove misinformation and other harmful content while Republicans are largely concerned with laws barring companies from censoring or removing content. According to Rebecca Allensworth, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, the larger issue is that ultimately, “regulation is regulation, so you will have a hard time bringing a lot of Republicans on board for a bill viewed as a heavy-handed aggressive takedown of Big Tech.” Given Congress’ recent track record in moving major pieces of legislation, and powerful opposition from the ad tech industry, the BSSA might be abandoned along with other recent technology legislation.  

Epic Games v. Apple on App Store Payment Systems in South Korea

By: Inyoung Cheong

Why Did Epic Games’ CEO Claim to be South Korean?

As a South Korean, it felt surreal to see Oli London, a British YouTube influencer, claiming to be Korean following multiple plastic surgeries. Although Korean culture has been well-promoted by the band BTS (and more recently by the Netflix show, Squid Game), I never imagined that a non-Korean would ever want to be Korean. Soon after, more astonishing news came out. Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, one of the most influential video game companies in the world, tweeted “I am a Korean!” Why is this high-profile figure so thrilled about my home country? 

How Epic Games Was Treated in the U.S.

Epic has been involved in a serious dispute with Apple since 2015 when Tim Sweeny questioned the necessity of digital marketplaces, like Apple’s App Store for iOS devices and Google Play, taking 30% of app-generated revenue. To avoid the 30% charge, Epic released an installer in mid-2020 for its massively popular video game, Fortnite “Season 4,” with a feature, codenamed “Project Liberty,” that offered a 20% discount for in-game money when users chose to directly purchase the game from Epic. Apple took down the app Fortnite for violating its App Store’s terms of service within hours, leaving iOS and macOS users unable to update their video game. Apple has claimed that in-app purchase policies “ensure that iOS apps meet Apple’s high standards for privacy, security, content, and quality.” However, app developers view this system as monopolistic and exploitative, one that allows companies like Google and Apple to make a quick profit without providing value to developers or consumers. 

Interview with Tim Cook on Sway, April 5 2021

In the United States, the U.S. District Court for Northern California did not fully agree with antitrust claims brought by Epic Games against Apple regarding this issue. While Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers issued a permanent injunction in this case in September 2021 that requires Apple to allow app developers to communicate with users about alternative payment systems, Epic Games suffered a pyrrhic victory. Judge Rogers rejected the allegation that Apple’s App Store is a monopoly and ordered Epic Games to pay Apple 30% of all revenue collected through the system since it was implemented for breach of contract. This award amounts to a sum of more than $3.5 million. On Twitter, Tim Sweeney expressed his disappointment, saying “[t]oday’s ruling isn’t a win for developers or for consumers.” 

It’s important to also note that while the lawsuit was still ongoing, Apple lowered its commission from 30% to 15% for developers that make under one million U.S. dollars per year. 

The World’s First Law Directly Regulating In-App Purchase Systems 

In contrast to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, South Korean lawmakers turned out to be more empathetic to app developers. In an exceptional move, South Korean lawmakers made the practice of forcing app purchases through particular virtual storefronts illegal. In August 2021, South Korea’s National Assembly enacted amendments to the country’s Telecommunications Business Act that commits the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) to preventing online platforms from requiring certain payment methods, unfairly delaying the review of mobile content, and unfairly deleting mobile content from the app market. In Apple’s case, an app-developer whose app was removed from Apple’s App Store can simply file a complaint with the KCC and seek an administrative penalty against the App Store instead of bringing a time-consuming lawsuit. Currently, it appears that South Korea is the only country on the planet to enforce this type of legislation, hence Time Sweeney’s jubilant cry, “I am a Korean!”

Debates Over the New Law in the South Korea’s National Assembly 

Predictably, both Google and Apple recently worked with local major law firms in appealing to the legislature to block passage of the bill. Global business organizations including the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, NetChoice, Asian Trade Center, and Asia Internet Coalition also filed objections to the bill. All of these groups argued that compliance with in-app purchase policies contributes to creating safe, secure, and credible digital platforms that have enabled developers to sell their products abroad. 

Affected tech companies even turned to the U.S. government and accused the bill of being a non-tariff trade barrier in violation of a joint trade agreement, but the Biden administration did not take official action other than briefly mentioning the issue in the U.S. Trade Representative National Trade Estimate Report in March 2021. According to the New York Times, this inaction reflects the Biden administration’s critical attitude towards these tech giants’ incredible power over commerce.

In addition, legislative documents demonstrate disagreement between various Korean government agencies. The Korea Fair Trade Commission (Korea FTC) initially opposed this bill because “forcing payment systems” could be regulated by antitrust authorities as predatory conduct without introducing new telecommunication regulations. In the end however, Korea FTC reluctantly agreed to the KCC’s jurisdiction into this area after weathering President Moon and lawmakers’ relentless concerns and rebuke concerning the current disparity in app markets. 

Google and Apple Took Different Approaches 

Just after the enactment of the new law, Epic Games requested that Apple restore Fortnite to operational condition in South Korea, but Apple declined. Apple said, “we would welcome Epic’s return to the App Store if they agree to play by the same rules as everyone else.” The KCC then requested that Apple and Google submit compliance plans by October 2021. Both companies’ initial plans were, however, turned down by the KCC. 

Before submitting a new plan, Wilson L. White, Google’s public policy and government relations senior counsel, had a conference with a KCC chairman on November 4th. White committed to giving developers “the option to add an alternative in-app billing system alongside Google Play’s billing system for their users in Korea.” 

In contrast to Google’s move, Apple remains resistant. Apple is holding its ground, stating that its current policy is already compliant with the law, even though a KCC official made it clear that Apple’s position “goes against the law.” The South Korean local newspaper ETNEWS reported that Apple CEO Tim Cook ordered “we should not step back in South Korea.” It was also announced that Apple’s Korea unit chief Brandon Yoon resigned from his position. A South Korean lawmaker, Jo Seung-rae, opined that neither Apple nor Google are doing enough to comply with South Korea’s new law and called Apple’s claim that it complied with the law “nonsensical.”

Tim Sweeney’s Push and KCC’s Remaining Tasks 

Tim Sweeny gave a speech in South Korea on November, 15, 2021, saying “Apple is ignoring laws passed by Korea’s democracy. Apple must be stopped.” He also expressed his strong support for South Korea’s anti-monopoly push during a video conference with the Korea Communications Commission’s Chair, Han Sang-hyuk, on November 17. Chair Han said, “[f]or a platform ecosystem where everyone coexists, not only the government, but also platform companies, content producers, creators, and users need to participate in making changes.”

Last month, the KCC initiated notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. The KCC notified the public about the implementation of an ordinance that allows the KCC to impose monetary penalties of up to two percent of a company’s revenues on companies that do not comply, although the precise definition of “revenues” has not been settled and it remains to be seen whether “revenues” applies to South Korea alone or the global market. While there are still shortcomings in the law and complexities to iron out, it is undeniable that this new Korean law has ignited meaningful policy discussions over mobile app market practices around the world.

Inyoung Cheong is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Washington School of Law and former Deputy Director of the Korea Communications Commission. 

Carpenter v. United States – What future for digital privacy?

Picture1By Jabu Diagana

On November 29th, 2017, the Supreme Court will hear Carpenter v. United States and decide whether the government violates the Fourth Amendment when it accesses a third party’s record of an individual’s cell phone location without a warrant.

Carpenter was a 2011 case where the defendant was convicted of a series of interstate robberies based on his phone location data, also known as cell-site-location information (CSLI). CSLI is maintained by wireless carriers and is a record of the cell towers our phones connect to every time we transmit calls, texts, emails, or any other digital information. It usually includes the precise geolocation of each tower as well as the day and time the phone tried to connect to it. The government obtained CSLI under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), a 1986 federal statute which provides that a “governmental entity may require a provider of electronic communication service or remote computing service to disclose” records using either a warrant, or, as in Carpenter, using a court order issued “if the governmental entity offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

Stated differently, the real question is to what extent does the SCA allow the government to obtain CSLI without a warrant? Or to put it more bluntly, is the SCA unconstitutional?

The Sixth Circuit holding in Carpenter turned on the “third-party doctrine.”

The third-party doctrine originated in Smith v. Maryland, a 1979 case in which the Supreme Court found that installing and using a pen register to record a phone user’s dialed numbers was not an illegal search and didn’t merit Fourth Amendment protections. According to the Smith court, although the contents of our phone conversations are protected, information about the sender or receiver is not, since they willingly disclose that information to the phone company every time they place a call. Following this logic, the Sixth Circuit first found that the third-party doctrine also authorizes the government to access CSLI as “business records” directly from a cell phone company without a warrant. Additionally, it found that when a person uses their cell phone, they should be aware that their location data is shared with the service provider and should not have any “reasonable expectation of privacy” with respect to that data.

Although Carpenter is about users’ cell locations information, the principle at issue spans over other aspects of our digital privacy, given all the data we now share with third parties through the use of smartphones, wifi hotspots, apps, and cloud-based services. As Justice Sotomayor highlighted in her United States v. Jones concurrence, whatever our current societal expectations of privacy are, our citizenry can “attain constitutionally protected status only if our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence ceases to treat secrecy as a prerequisite for privacy.”

Whether Carpenter is affirmed or overruled, the court discourse will likely revolve around the impracticability of the “third-party doctrine” in the digital age. Does sharing with one mean sharing with many? It is tempting to recommend that the court abandons the “third party” doctrine, but that may be over simplistic. If the court choose to modify it, then where should the line be drawn? should there be a difference between information voluntarily conveyed to a third party or stored on the cloud? There is also a time component to this issue.  How long is continuous tracking too long? All these questions, a priori theoretical will be fundamental to the future of our privacy.