Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced this week that it would not update its anti-spam rule, completing the agency’s first 10-year review of the regulation.

The FTC last updated the rule, known as the CAN-SPAM Rule, in 2008. The rule requires, among other things, that commercial e-mail messages have a mechanism for allowing the recipient to opt out of future messages.

As part of the FTC’s review process, the FTC sought comments on whether the agency should update the definition of “transaction or relationship messages,” shorten the time period for honoring opt-out requests, or add to the statutory list of aggravated violations.

Ultimately, the Commission chose to keep the 2008 rule. Despite the advent of social media, increasingly sophisticated processes for identifying spam and managing opt-outs, and never-ending threats to a clean inbox, the FTC repeatedly declined to take up commenters’ suggestions for changing the CAN-SPAM Rule, citing unclear cost-benefit analysis outcomes, lack of evidence, and limited Congressional authority.  Here’s some examples:

  • On shortening the time period for opt-out requests: “[N]one of these comments provided the Commission with evidence showing how or to what extent the current ten business-day time-period has negatively affected consumers, nor did they address the concerns noted by other commenters that such a change may pose substantial burdens on small businesses.”
  • On commenter suggestions to modify opt-out requirements: “[N]one of the comments provides the Commission with information about the costs and benefits of these proposed rule changes.”
  • On comments asking the FTC to require consumer permission before transferring or selling a consumer’s email address to a third-party, and blocking all unsolicited spam from servers outside the US: “The Commission also declines to consider the remaining proposed modifications because each would be inconsistent with the Commission’s circumscribed authority under the Act.”

The FTC voted unanimously to confirm the CAN-SPAM Rule. If you have any questions about your obligations pursuant to the CAN-SPAM Rule, please contact Alysa Hutnik or Alex Schneider at Kelley Drye.

This week, President Trump signed an executive order outlining a national plan to promote the development and adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.  The order serves as the official launch of the “American AI Initiative,” which includes five areas of focus:

  • Invest in AI R&D – Prioritize AI investment in Federal agencies’ R&D missions
  • Unleash AI Resources – Enhance availability of Federal data, models, and computing resources to America’s AI research and development experts
  • Set AI Governance Standards – Led by the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), develop technical standards for reliable, secure, trustworthy, and interoperable AI systems
  • Build the AI Workforce – Prioritize fellowships and training with Federal agencies to cultivate AI-focused skills and education
  • International Engagement and Protecting the U.S. AI Advantage – Implement an action plan to protect U.S. AI intellectual property

The order does not include a timeline or allocate specific funding for AI initiatives, though the Administration has indicated that a detailed plan to further the goals in the order will be released this year.

The order comes a day after remarks by FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra that referred to potential negative outcomes of AI technology. In a speech at the Silicon Flatirons Conference in Colorado, Commissioner Chopra raised concerns about biases, and potential inequality based on gender or race, that can result from “black box” decision-making technology that combines AI algorithms with massive data collection. Commissioner Chopra noted that current consumer protection laws that exist to address human bias in the marketplace must similarly be structured to account for AI-generated biases, echoing sentiments raised by participants at the FTC’s AI-focused competition and consumer protection hearing held last year.

Most of our posts regarding “Made in USA” claims relate to FTC investigations and enforcement actions. Private plaintiffs, however, also closely watch those claims. For example, in 2018 plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against New Balance Athletics Inc. challenging qualified “Made in USA” claims. Although the plaintiffs acknowledged that New Balance qualified the claim in some places to indicate that the domestic value is at least 70%, they alleged that the general impression is that the products are American made. To resolve that litigation, a California federal judge recently granted preliminary approval to a proposed $750,000 settlement.

In Dashnaw v. New Balance Athletics, Inc., consumers alleged that New Balance mischaracterized its line of “Made in USA” sneakers because as little as 70% of the product was made with domestic components or labor. The claim appeared in advertising, on the shoes, and on the shoe boxes. The complaint acknowledged that New Balance disclosed in some places that its “Made in USA” sneakers contain a domestic value of 70% or greater, but alleged that an “Made in USA” claim appeared in places like the shoe and the shoe box. Because 30% of the value of those shoes could be attributed to a foreign country, plaintiffs alleged that the claims violated both California law, requiring that foreign materials must not exceed 5% of the final wholesale value, and FTC guidelines, stating that a product must be “all or virtually all” made in the United States.

The case was transferred from state court to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, where the parties initiated settlement discussions. In April, the parties proposed a settlement of $750,000, with $215,000 going to settlement administration costs and compensation and $535,000 to consumers, with each consumer receiving up to $10. Judge Lorenz denied the settlement stating that the proposed amount was not enough for the estimated 1 million class action members. In response, the parties explained that a 5% participation rate among class members would result in full compensation and even with a 10-15% participation rate, each class member would receive 35-50% of the maximum damages the class could receive at trial, which they called a “reasonable settlement amount.” Judge Lorenz granted preliminary approval to the proposed settlement of $750,000 on January 25, 2019.

This case reminds advertisers that when using a disclosure to qualify a Made in USA claim or any other claim, the disclosure must appear consistently to maximize effectiveness. The FTC has also cautioned that even qualified claims may imply more domestic content than exists, so advertisers should avoid qualified claims unless the product has a significant amount of U.S. content or U.S. processing.

This morning, the FDA announced its intention to engage in greater oversight of the dietary supplement industry.  The announcement also conveyed that the Agency had sent 12 warning letters and five advisory letters to companies over the prior two weeks.  Some of these letters were jointly issued by FDA and the Federal Trade Commission, focusing on what the two agencies consider to be illegal and deceptive claims in advertising and labeling for products intended to treat Alzheimer’s and other serious diseases such as diabetes and cancer, rendering the products unapproved new “drugs” rather than “dietary supplements” under federal law.

In his statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stated an intent to step up FDA efforts to improve product safety and police deceptive claims.  Amongst other initiatives, Mr. Gottlieb stated that the Agency is developing a new “rapid response tool” to alert the public if a supplement contains an illegal ingredient or poses a health risk.  While supplement manufacturers should be pleased that efforts are being made to weed out bad actors, they should also be concerned about unintended consequences that might result from use of such a rapid response tool.  The damage to a brand from an FDA alert could be significant.

Gottlieb also indicated that FDA is working to “develop [new] guidance for preparing [new dietary ingredient] NDI notifications” to help ensure that the regulatory framework is both sufficiently flexible and adequately protects public safety.  As part of its work to modernize the NDI process, FDA is also planning to update its compliance policy regarding NDIs.  Mr. Gottlieb also weighed in on the idea of creating an FDA registry, whereby supplement manufacturers would be required to list products and ingredients.  The registry, presumably, would allow FDA to concentrate enforcement efforts, but before it could be created, Congress almost certainly would need to act.  Gottlieb’s statement seemed to acknowledge this, and he cited the possibility of “dietary supplement exclusivity” similar to the exclusivity presently enjoyed by drug manufacturers as another potential issue ripe for congressional consideration.

In order to concentrate on these issues and others affecting industry and consumers, Mr. Gottlieb reported that he has established a Dietary Supplement Working Group at the FDA, “comprised of representatives from multiple centers and offices across the agency.”  The Working Group will report directly to the Commissioner and will review “organizational structures, processes, procedures and practices in order to identify opportunities to modernize our oversight of dietary supplements.”  In addition to these steps, FDA will conduct a public meeting this spring that will focus on “responsible innovation and safety.”  All stakeholders are invited to provide comment on “how the FDA should strengthen the dietary supplement program for the future.”

Much of the justification for increased oversight is centered on what FDA has characterized as a startling increase in the number of dietary supplements generally, and adulterated and misbranded supplements specifically.  Whether the framework that FDA will put in place is narrowly conceived to address this problem, without creating unnecessary and burdensome requirements on reputable companies, remains to be seen.  Stakeholders should monitor these developments closely and consider engagement through public comments or participation at the public meeting given Gottlieb has made clear that the Agency wants to hear both from industry and consumers as it assesses how best to move forward.

The FTC’s “Hey Nineteen” blog post caught our attention this past week, and not just for its witty title. One of those reasons is the reference to continued interest in “Made in USA” claims.  As we’ve written about here, “Made in America” has been a frequent enforcement target in recent years and 2018 generally continued this trend.  Here’s how it stacked up:

The FTC completed 25 investigations, settling four enforcement actions and issuing 21 closing letters.

Similarly, in 2017 the FTC settled two enforcement actions and issued 22 closing letters. All indications are that these trends will continue in 2019.

So what can companies do to avoid being the subject of an upcoming FTC Business Center blog post? Here are some tips:

Tip #1: Audit Inventory Management Systems and Processes

Mistakes can launch FTC investigations, as one company learned this past year.

In response to inquiries from the FTC, Prime-Line Products Company, a maker of corner shields, stated that after depleting its inventory of US-made corner shields, it substituted identical imported corner shields. Then, apparently inadvertently, the company continued to apply the “Made in USA” label.

Eventually, the FTC closed its investigation without bringing an enforcement action against the company. But the case serves as a reminder to companies employing the “Made in USA” label to closely manage inventory.  If only a percentage of supply is sourced to the US, companies should create internal processes to avoid mislabeling inventory.

Of course, inventory management can become challenging, especially when working with multiple dealers, distributors, or resellers that may not be familiar with inventory changes. Companies should proactively develop a compliance plan to ensure marketing remains accurate in all sales channels.

Tip #2: Train Employees

Employees, from marketing and sales to the warehouse floor, are the first line of defense against false “Made in USA” claims. Employees should be aware of when “Made in USA” claims may be made, and should be trained on processes for alerting management if they observe any inadvertent errors.

As detailed in multiple closing letters, companies targeted by FTC investigations told the FTC that they would retrain staff on proper, non-deceptive claims. This common-sense approach is advisable for all companies.  All training materials should conform to the standards laid out by the FTC in its Complying with the Made in USA Standard guidance, but should also be practical and easy-to-use.  Checklists, webinars, and workplace posters are good options for educating a company’s workforce.

Tip #3: Qualify Advertising Claims

Last year’s cases show that investigations skewed toward plain, unqualified “Made in USA” claims. Qualified claims, which provide more detail about a component made domestically or process that occurred domestically, may take up more space or obscure a company’s marketing message.  Nevertheless, when it comes to “Made in USA” labeling, accuracy counts.

In one example from the last year, The Gillette Company, LLC, was the target of an FTC inquiry due to its “Boston Made Since 1901” advertising. The FTC closed its investigation, but the example is instructive.  Gillette has deep roots in Boston and sought to use this information in an advertisement.  But without a qualification, the FTC viewed the advertisement as asserting that all of Gillette’s products are made in the US.  Gillette stated that it would re-focus its advertising campaign to highlight its Boston-based employees and manufacturing and the FTC closed the matter.

Tip #4: Size Doesn’t Matter

When it comes to enforcement of the “Made in USA” standards, there is no safe harbor for small businesses. Companies large and small were the target of investigations in 2018.

That included large companies, like Hallmark Cards, Incorporated, and IKEA Purchasing Services (US), Inc. The FTC closed investigations into each of these companies via a closing letter, without further action.

Meanwhile, the FTC’s major enforcement actions of the year were primarily against small or mid-size companies. Underground Sports Inc. d/b/a Patriot Puck imported just 400,000 hockey pucks since January 2016, but faced a significant enforcement action.  Notably, American-made claims featured prominently in these companies’ advertising.  Indeed, their conduct was so objectionable, that following announcement of these settlements, discussion has arisen regarding monetary penalties for false “Made in USA” claims.

Tip #5: Act Now!  Financial Penalties May Be Coming

FTC commissioners are very publicly debating the merits of imposing financial penalties for false “Made in USA” claims.

A leading advocate has been Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who argued in a dissent that settlements have been too lenient and are not deterring similar conduct.  But, as reported in December in this blog, Chairman Joseph Simons too is focused on the potential need to impose monetary relief.  At a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, Simons said, “Now we’re exploring whether we can find a good case that would be appropriate for monetary relief to serve as an additional deterrent.”

Given the political interest in increasing the penalties for false claims, companies may want to (make and actually stick to) a New Year’s resolution to make sure their “Made in USA” claims are substantiated. If you’re new to this area or need a refresher, check out our webinar and materials here.

The Federal Trade Commission has long supported advertising industry self-regulation as a means of promoting truthfulness and accuracy in advertising. One of the key aspects of this success has been threat of referral to the FTC: Advertisers that refuse to participate in the self-regulatory process or refuse to comply with recommendations after participating are referred to the appropriate government entity, usually the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices, which will review the claims at issue. Over the years, the specter of a National Advertising Division referral to the FTC has prompted most advertisers to participate in the self-regulatory process and comply with the final decision.

Law360 published the article “NAD Referrals To FTC: How Big Is That Stick?,” co-authored by partner John Villafranco and senior associate Donnelly McDowell.  The article provides an analysis of recent NAD cases that suggests referrals to the FTC are on the rise over the past two years and discusses advertiser commitment to the self-regulatory process. Are advertisers turning their back on self-regulation and rolling the dice at the FTC? And are they doing so based on an assessment of the risk that a referral could result in a major FTC investigation or enforcement action?

To read the article, please click here.

While many today returned to work after the Holiday season, things remained quieter than usual here in the nation’s capital – with many federal workers furloughed until further notice as the federal government continues to be in a partial shutdown.  President Trump is reportedly meeting with congressional leaders today ahead of Thursday’s start to a new congressional session but, at least for now, there’s no immediate end to the shutdown in sight.

Here’s how the shutdown is affecting federal agencies responsible for overseeing and enforcing advertising and privacy laws:

  • The FTC closed as of midnight December 28, 2018.  All events are postponed and website information and social media will not be updated until further notice.  While some FTC online services are available, others are not.  More information here.
  • The CPSC is also closed, although a December 18, 2018 CPSC memorandum summarizing shutdown procedures indicates that certain employees “necessary to protect against imminent threats to human safety” will be excepted employees and continue work during the shutdown.  The CPSC consumer hotline also continues to operate. Companies should remember that obligations to report potential safety hazards are not furloughed, so the mantra of “when in doubt, report” still applies, even if public announcement of a recall may be delayed.
  • Roughly 40% of FDA is furloughed according to numbers released by its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.  In a post on its website, the agency explained that it will be continuing vital activities, to the extent permitted by law, including monitoring for and responding to public health issues related to the food and medical product supply.  The agency is also continuing work on activities funded by carryover user fee balances, although it is unable to accept any regulatory submissions for FY 2019 that require a fee payment.
  • Because the CFPB is funded through the Federal Reserve and not Congress, it remains in operation.

Last week, Gonzalo wrote about the letter Truth in Advertising sent to the FTC, urging the Commission to investigate Diageo’s use of influencers to market Ciroc vodka on Instagram. We also learned last week that the Humane Society sent a similar letter to the FTC requesting that Commission initiate an investigation of Pilgrim’s Pride for its treatment of chickens.  These complaints got us thinking – how often are third parties successful in instigating regulatory activity?

Of course, without knowing the facts, it is impossible to know whether the complaint allegations have merit.  We do know, however, that many similar complaints have been filed asking the FTC to look into a company’s practices.  For example, with regard to the subject of animal welfare, we have seen complaints that include allegations of deceptive advertising relating to puppy sellers and pork producers. Similar claims have also been filed by PETA (example here) and Mercy for Animals (example here). These complaints have not usually led to litigation or negotiated consent orders.

That is not to say that these complaints do not result in some action. For example, last year, after four consumer groups urged the FTC to investigate and bring enforcement actions regarding the use of influencers on Instagram, the FTC sent more than 90 letters to companies and influencers, reminding the recipients of their legal obligations. And in 2016, after HSUS urged the FTC to take action against companies claiming “faux fur” (example here), the FTC released a blog post warning consumers about the risks (details here).

Even without FTC action, complaints themselves may have an effect on the company involved. As another example, in 2013, Tyson Foods announced a commitment to the humane treatment of animals and formed an independent advisory panel to help them pursue this mission after the Humane Society and the Animal Legal Defense Fund both filed FTC complaints against them. Full story here.

Also, in the area of dietary supplement advertising, the FTC has maintained a strong interest in the crackdown against false advertising of health claims, and they have taken action when urged to do so by third parties.  CSPI filed a complaint asking for the FTC and FDA to file claims against dietary supplements holding themselves out as opioid withdrawal aids and were successful in getting the action pursued (here).

So, while third party complaints don’t always (or even usually) lead to formal enforcement action, they do often result in action.

Earlier this week, Truth in Advertising (or “TINA.org”) sent a letter to the FTC urging the Commission to investigate Diageo’s use of influencers to market Ciroc vodka on Instagram. According to the letter, TINA.org collected more than 1,700 Instagram posts across 50 different influencers — including Ciroc brand manager and CMO Sean “Diddy” Combs — in which the influencers allegedly failed to disclose their connection to the company in a clear and conspicuous manner.

This is not the first time that consumer groups have pushed the FTC to investigate influencer campaigns. And if this is like any of the previous pushes, it’s likely that some of the posts don’t actually violate the law. For example, some groups have misstated the legal requirements in this area and have identified posts that didn’t violate the law. That led the FTC to send warning letters to individuals who actually had no connections to the brands mentioned in their posts. Nevertheless, there are various examples in this letter that may be Ciroc Postproblematic and potential targets for enforcement.

Apart from the endorsement issues, the letter goes on to describe other problems with the content of the posts, including “kids in Ciroc ads, Ciroc-fueled misogynistic ads, a recipe for cannabis-infused strawberry lemonade with Ciroc, and even a booze-drinking Santa who needs to spread the ‘liquid love.’” (There is also an image of a toddler holding a baby bottle of Ciroc.) To make matters worse, the influencers did not use age-gating features, so that minors were able to view the ads. As TINA.org points out, these practices are likely to violate the Distilled Spirits Council’s Code of Responsible Practices for alcohol ads.

TINA.org has asked the FTC to investigate Diageo and to take appropriate enforcement action.

It’s too early to tell what will happen here, but it will be interesting to see how the FTC reacts. Although companies that market age-restricted items should pay particular attention, this action holds lessons for any company that works with influencers. If you haven’t evaluated how your company manages influencer campaigns recently, now may be a good time to do that.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission released new business guidance for direct sellers and multilevel marketers describing the legal principles that it will apply when evaluating practices under the FTC Act. Law360 published the article “What The FTC Said About Direct Selling In 2018,” co-authored by partner John Villafranco and senior associate Donnelly McDowell.  The article discusses the FTC guidance along with recent enforcement actions and staff comments, and poses seven questions direct sellers and multilevel marketers should consider as we close out 2018 and look toward the future. To read the article, please click here.