Showing posts with label FTC. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FTC. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

FTC 'junk fees' proposal needs tightening

The CFPB is attacking junk fees in banking. The FTC rule
would govern consumer sales transactions. CFPB image.

Today I submitted the following comment to the Federal Trade Commission on the notice of proposed rule-making regarding "Trade Regulation Rule on Unfair or Deceptive Fees." These are the "junk fees" that the Biden Administration has pledged to combat.

The NPRM was published on November 9, 2023. You too can comment at the Federal Register website. You can bet that business will be crying loudly about the impracticality of simply telling customers what the price of a thing is.

I support the proposed rule, though I don't think it goes far enough. My comment focuses on select points of ambiguity on which already I foresee business intransigence.

Elsewhere in the world, even tax is part of a price. When my friends and family visit from abroad, they are flummoxed by the repeated experience of seeing a price and then having to pay more. For some reason we countenance this in America, as if in some kind of wild West approach to market regulation, it's OK for a seller to put a gun to the consumer's head at the point of sale. As I say in my comment, that is not what "free market" means.


December 6, 2023

I support the proposed rule because I support free-market transaction and regulatory policy. A free market requires transparency around the terms of transaction to both buyer and seller. When a buyer is surprised by junk fees, that is, fees that are applied to a transaction after the customer believes that she or he has concluded negotiation of the terms, the seller is able to conclude the transaction upon an unfair advantage. It is an appropriate role for government regulation to level the marketplace by ensuring transparency, and that means upfront total pricing.

I note [a] point of potential ambiguity, and, thus, potential abuse by sellers. In the proposed rule, “Government charges” are defined as

all fees or charges imposed on consumers by a Federal, State, or local government agency, unit, or department. This definition covers only fees or charges imposed by the government on consumers and does not encompass fees or charges that the government imposes on a business and that the business chooses to pass on to consumers.

I anticipate argument over two points.

First, I expect that quasi-governmental actors, such as a corporations created by statute, and government contractors, such as service concessionaires, are not agencies of government. Sellers might disagree.

Second, if a governmental actor compels a seller to report and pay a per consumer or per transaction fee, I expect that the fee is nonetheless a fee that the business “chooses to pass on to consumers.” Sellers might disagree.

By way of example, I have just made a car reservation with Avis at BWI. My upfront price was $104.82.

On the payment page, the following fees were added:

  • Concession Recovery Fee (11.11%): 12.27
  • Customer Facility Charge-3.75/day: 7.50
  • Transportation Facility Charge-2.25/day: 4.50
  • Vehicle License Fee-0.56/day: 1.12
  • Total Tax: 14.97

The additional fees sum $40.36, which is a 38.5% markup on the upfront price.

All of these fees are sanctioned by Maryland law. The former two fees are passed on by Avis to the Maryland Airport Authority (MAA), and the latter fee is, self-evidently, a tax. I do not know the beneficiary of the penultimate two fees, but I assume that the Transportation Facility Charge goes to an MAA shuttle contractor.

So first, is the MAA contractor a “government agency, unit, or department” under the proposed rule? I suggest no, because contractors and concessionaires, like quasi-governmental “sue or be sued” entities created by Congress, are expected to comply with the rules of the competitive marketplace when they act in a commercial capacity. However, Avis might disagree, arguing that the fee is set by the MAA. The MAA is a governmental unit of Maryland state government.

Second, are these fees “impose[d] on a business[,] and … the business chooses to pass [them] on to consumers”? I suggest yes, because Avis owes these fees to the MAA, et al., but is not obligated to pass them on to consumers. As long as Avis accounts for the fees with the government, Avis remains free to price its services as it pleases. Moreover, to calculate the state tax on the car rental, 11.5%, the tax basis includes the fees. Thus, it seems plain to me that the fees represent the price of service and are not akin to a tax that is imposed upon the transaction. However, Avis might disagree, arguing that the seller is a mere conduit for fees set by the MAA.

I suggest that the junk-fee rule is virtually impotent in a broad range of transactions if it does not address fees in a transaction such as this one. While I might like to see tax and all incorporated into upfront pricingas it is in countries the world overI understand that that is not the American custom. But any fee besides tax on sale or service should be disclosed to a customer as part of an upfront price. Otherwise, the proposed rule is completely undermined. I must go all the way to the payment page of the Avis transaction before I discover the actual price, a substantial markup, for the transaction I desire.

I hope you will clarify that government contractors and comparable quasi-governmental actors are not governmental actors within the meaning of the proposed rule. And I hope you will clarify that government-sanctioned fees that are incorporated into the tax basis of a transaction, even if imposed on a per customer or per transaction basis, are fees that a seller “chooses to pass on to consumers.”

Saturday, September 3, 2022

FTC finally notices abuse of customers, shady business practices by car rental industry

In an omnibus resolution late last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) green-lighted investigation of the car rental industry.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the "new lows" of our car rental oligopoly in the United States, including my own experiences with the misleading Hertz "loyalty" program and the manipulation of pickup and drop-off times to draw overage fees.

The resolution broadly compels investigation "[t]o determine whether any persons, partnerships, corporations, or others have engaged or are engaging in deceptive or unfair acts or practices in or affecting commerce in the advertising, marketing, promotion, sale, tracking, or distribution of rental cars."

For context, Frankfurt Kurnit's Jeff Greenbaum wrote in Advertising Law Updates that commissioners ordered similar investigations in July 2021 into "areas such as COVID-19, healthcare, and technology platforms," and in September 2021 into services targeting veterans and children, "algorithmic and biometric bias, deceptive and manipulative conduct online, repair restrictions, and abuse of intellectual property."

The FTC didn't detail the buzz in its bonnet, but they likely heard lawmakers in the spring frowning on Hertz's misreporting of stolen cars. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote Hertz a nasty-gram in March. Forty-seven customers filed suit for false arrest in July, CNN reported (via ABC 7 L.A.), and they're not the only ones.

I documented my rental return this summer in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

I've started taking the advice of The Points Guy's Summer Hull to take pictures and videos of my rental cars when I pick them up and when I return them. One Mile at a Time advises the same

But I'm doubting the utility of it. I'm not sure you can see scratches or dents in the images, especially in dark garages. And, as Hull herself reported, she was called out for alleged damage to the roof, which she had not climbed up to photograph. I wonder whether I should crawl under the car to photograph the undercarriage.

Lately rental companies have presented me with an up-sell option for tire and window insurance, threatening that they're not covered even if a buy the CDW. And don't get me started on involuntary "upgrades" to fuel-inefficient trucks. Even the sedan pictured here, which I rented this summer in Thunder Bay, Ontario, was what I got when I reserved an SUV to tackle unpaved roads.

Meanwhile, my budding occupation as car portraitist is eating into my travel time and my hard drive space.

It seems to me that when customers start having systematically to video-record their interactions with industry to protect themselves against fraud, the problem might be with the industry and not with the customer.

Oh, FTC ... đŸ¤™

Saturday, August 13, 2022

NBC resists TV free market, overcharges U.S. viewers: PL football costs $20 in Canada, $70 in United States

Each year, I become freshly enraged at the cost of seeing Premier League football in the United States, a ready example of antitrust non-enforcement in the communication sector.

The Sporting News had the audacity, or stupidity?, to describe NBC carriage of PL matches in the United States as a "luxury." I guess it is, a luxury only the rich can afford. To follow one's team, one must, at minimum, subscribe to NBC partner FuboTV for $70 per month. Access via FuboTV costs just US$20 per month in Canada.

The tangled cross-ownerships of what used to be broadcast TV are indicative of the dearth of consumer protection in the area. NBC "competitor" CBS (Viacom) owns a stake in FuboTV. The legacy broadcasters are using their weight in contracting power to lock down content in channel consolidators that emulate the old cable TV business model, by which consumers were compelled to overpay for a sliver of content in a library they didn't want. Hardly the free market promise of streaming.

But the FCC long ago left the helm unmanned on consumer protection when broadcasting gave way to cable. And the FTC and DOJ have had little interest in expanding their purview in times of corporate-captured governance. As usual, the United States purports to model free market capitalism in an oligopolized market that is anything but.

FuboTV in Canada at left, United States at right.
The package in Canada has fewer channels,
but if PL is all you want, that's not an option.

Monday, January 24, 2022

American Airlines resists transparency, sues 'Points Guy' for tortious interference, trademark infringement

Photo by RJ Peltz-Steele at O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg,
South Africa, 2020 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Points Guy (TPG) has become embroiled in litigation with American Airlines over how the TPG app lets users manage their frequent flyer miles, the airline charging the website with tortious interference and trademark infringement.

I read TPG every day.  The website is funded by product placements and advertising, especially by credit card companies.  One has to know that and take the content with heaps of salt.  But I find TPG incomparable and nonetheless worthwhile for keeping up with the travel industry.  And TPG advice has been especially helpful to me with advice on frequent flyer programs, for example, letting me know how much miles are worth on average in real dollars, so I know whether dynamic redemption tables are offering a good deal.

I also like some of the writers at TPG, because they set a tone that resonates with me, mixing a desire for industry accountability, especially for airlines, with a sense of humor and a lighthearted wonder of the world.  Baltimore-based senior editor BenĂ©t J. Wilson (LinkedIn, Muck Rack, Twitter; see also Poynter) is especially fabulous; check out her wider world at Aviation Queen.  I met BenĂ©t when she taught an outstanding program on advanced Google research tools for the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), and thereby for my FOI Law students, who participated.

Last year, TPG launched an Apple app.  I haven't used it, because I'm an Android user.  I avoid Apple products because I've never been a fan of Apple intellectual property (IP) policies, which I mention because it's relevant here.  Apple's limited submission to a right of repair for Apple smartphones is a step in the right direction; more on that momentarily.  Anyway, TPG is working on the Android version of the app.

Among many features, the TPG app empowers users to manage their frequent flyer miles.  TPG deep-links to data from sites such as that of American Airlines (AA), within users' accounts there.  Obviously, this access improves the user's ability to maximize the value of their miles, recognizing good deals and, key, getting advance warning when miles are set to expire.

AA was not happy about that.  The company accused TPG of violating the terms and conditions of the website and frequent flyer program, AAdvantage, thus, allegedly, interfering with AA's contract with its customers and infringing on AA IP.  According to media reports, TPG sued AA in Delaware state court the week before last.  I assume TPG sought declaratory relief; at the time of this writing, the complaint is not yet available from Delaware courts.

Then on Tuesday last week, AA sued TPG in federal court, in AA's home Northern District of Texas.  The complaint alleged tortious interference with, inter alia, contract, unfair competition by misappropriation, (virtual) trespass, trademark infringement and dilution, copyright infringement, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

For Law360, Jasmin Jackson filled in some background last week (limited access without subscription).  Jackson reported that TPG initially sought AA's partnership in the app.  AA declined.  Since the app's launch, the two were discussing their differences.  AA claimed surprise at TPG's Delaware filing and accused TPG of leveraging its position with litigation costs and compelling, AA said, the suit in Texas.

I see the case as a high-tech relation of the right-to-repair problem.  AA is gaining a business advantage through obfuscation of customer data and control of information under the guise of IP protection.  The same strategy is why I have to pay a high-dollar technician to tell me what's wrong with my car when the check-engine light comes on, and it's why 11% of McDonald's Taylor-made McFlurry machines are broken.

Customer frustration with companies' resistance to transactional transparency to maximize profit margins is manifesting in a wave of state legislation to protect consumers (see N.Y. Times July, Oct. 2021; repair industry website; U.S. PIRG).  Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a right-to-repair ballot initiative in 2020, despite a $25m no campaign by the auto industry (on this blog).  Industry promptly sued, principally claiming federal preemption.  The outcome of a 2021 trial in Alliance for Automotive Innovation v. Healy is still awaited, as the parties battle over a state motion to reopen trial evidence.

There is a Fair Repair Act bill in Congress, even if its odds of passage are dismal.  And the President last summer made overtures, however feeble, ordering the Federal Trade Commission to regulate to protect independent repair shops.  Industry claims it needs exclusive repair rights to protect consumers from incompetent independent technicians.  But a May 2021 FTC report located such industry claims somewhere between baseless and overstated.

The cause should be, and at least sometimes is, bipartisan.  As I have commented many times, free markets depend on transparency, the free flow of information between business and consumer.  So even economic conservatives should be able to get behind the right to repair.  That bipartisan impulse has fueled congressional appetite for now pending bills to enhance antitrust in the tech sector.  Apple's seemingly open-minded move to allow smartphone repair might have been calculated to head off antitrust enforcement.

Summons issued last week in the lawsuit filed by AA, which is American Airlines, Inc. v. Red Ventures LLC, No. 4:22-cv-00044 (N.D. Tex. filed Jan. 18, 2022).

UPDATE, Nov. 10: The parties settled on undisclosed terms on November 4, 2022.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Boston Bar panel surveys landscape of privacy law, data protection policy, class action litigation

Attorneys Melanie Conroy, Marjan Hajibandeh, and Matthew M.K. Stein
We had great fun yesterday, as lawyer fun goes, talking about privacy law in the United States, from the impact of the Privacy Shield collapse to the latest litigation under California's groundbreaking consumer privacy protection law.  I was privileged to appear in a Boston Bar Association program on privacy class action litigation, led by attorney Melanie A. Conroy, CIPP/US, of Pierce Atwood LLP, alongside practicing-attorney panelists Matthew M.K. Stein, of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, and Marjan Hajibandeh of CarGurus, Inc. 

Our topical reach was a breathless sprint across a dramatic landscape.  We opened with our respective thoughts on developments in privacy law, Conroy observing that the fast-paced field has undergone seismic shifts again and again in recent years, from the implementation of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) to the $18m Equifax data breach settlement in Massachusetts.

I spoke to the impact of the European Court of Justice decision ("Schrems II" (ECJ July 16, 2020)) invalidating the U.S.-EU Privacy Shield as a motivator for U.S. reform.  Besides the significance of the case in Europe and our foreign relations, the decision signals that a quarter century after adoption of the first European Data Protection Directive, Europe's patience with American recalcitrance has finally run out.

Julie Brill (MS CC) and William Kovacic
Former Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill told the Senate Commerce Committee this week that in two years, 65% of the world will be living under data protection laws, most of them modeled after the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).  As former Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman William Kovacic put it, if we don't pass legislation in the United States, "we will get a national privacy policy: the GDPR."  As I tweeted this week, hearing testimony drove the usually cool and collected Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to exclaim, "My God, this is clear, we need a strong privacy law." And Americans are ready; Brill said that nine out of ten Americans now believe that privacy is a human right.

Sen. Cantwell
Our panel ran down the latest developments in class action privacy litigation, loosely divided on the fronts of biometric data class actions, mostly arising under Illinois's pioneering Biometric Information Privacy Act; CCPA-related class actions in California; and data breach litigation.  I ran down cases in the latter vein and talked some about the present circuit split over Article III standing.  Federal courts have divided over whether "theft alone" can constitute concrete injury for constitutionally minimal standing, or plaintiffs must show some subsequent misuse of their data.  This issue is not limited to the data breach area, but has implications across a wide range of statutory enforcement systems, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

For my part, I predict that our dawning, if belated, understanding of the monetary value of personally identifiable information (PII) will lead us to the inevitable conclusion that theft alone suffices.  This is evidenced, for example, in Hogan v. NBCUniversal (D.R.I. filed Aug. 27, 2020), over the sale of Golf Channel subscriber identities, which subsequently were associated with other PII and resold.  Though for the time being, my favored conclusion is arguably not the inclination evidenced in the U.S. Supreme Court in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, in 2016.  Senator Dick Blumenthal (D.-Conn.) mentioned this week, apropos of current events, that Justice Ginbsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissented in Spokeo on just this point.

The late Justice Ginsburg; Sen. Blumenthal
Our next panel focus was developments in the First Circuit and Massachusetts.  In Massachusetts Superior Court in Boston, data breach litigation, filed in May 2019, against Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham & Women's Hospital, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, over online patient-service communications occurring outside secure portals, raises the very question of concrete harm, which may be resolved differently at the state level than under the federal Constitution.  Meanwhile in federal court, the same issue in data breach litigation, filed in March 2020, in Hartigan v. Macy's, highlights the lack of First Circuit precedent on the question since Spokeo, while citing strong pre-Spokeo indications that the First Circuit would favor the misuse-required position.

In parting observations, I offered that we have a long road ahead.  Of all the bills pending in Congress (see EPIC's excellent April report), only some propose a private cause of action and none attacks the problem of government surveillance, both purported prerequisites to European restoration of authorized trans-Atlantic data flow.  Within the U.S Congress, there appears to be bipartisan support for some kind of nationwide privacy legislation.  But the questions of private or FTC enforcement, and whether preemption would mean a legislative floor or ceiling remain sticking points that could derail the process.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Abstract: Arthur on vaccination and consumer protection

Donald C. Arthur, M.D., J.D. UMass Law '17, has published Commercial Deception by Anti-Vaccine Homeopathic Websites: A Consumer Protection Approach, 10 Biotechnology & Pharmaceutical L. Rev. 1, 27 (2017).  Here is the abstract.

Abstract
Some internet marketers offer for sale “vaccination substitutes” that can purportedly replace actual scientifically-tested and federally-approved vaccinations. Deceptive internet advertising for vaccine substitutes has dissuaded parents from vaccinating their children, resulting in a resurgence of vaccine-preventable childhood diseases. The Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission have the authority to address dangerously deceptive product claims, including those for homeopathic preparations that have thus far avoided safety and efficacy testing. This article presents the issues involved in deceptive advertising and proposes regulatory solutions.
The article is available to Westlaw Next subscribers here.  The Review is published at North Carolina Central University School of Law.

Claiming Don as an alumnus is decidedly my privilege.  Dr. Arthur is an emergency medicine and preventive medicine physician.  He served 33 years in the U.S. Navy, culminating his career as Navy surgeon general and retiring at the rank of vice admiral. He served as chief executive officer of three hospitals, including the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.