On November 3, the FTC announced that it entered into a significant $100 million settlement with Vonage to resolve allegations relating to the internet phone service provider’s sales and autorenewal practices. The FTC alleged that Vonage violated both the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA) by failing to provide a simple cancellation mechanism, failing to disclose material transaction terms prior to obtaining consumers’ billing information, and charging consumers without consent.

Based on the available materials, it appears that Vonage’s process for subscription cancellation was at the heart of the FTC’s concerns, as the complaint presents a sharp contrast between the sign up processes available to consumers (website and telephone) and those for cancellation (telephone only). The complaint alleges that consumers who sought to cancel their service by telephone – often after attempting to cancel through email or web chat – encountered a series of obstacles, including “obscured” contact information, long wait times, dropped or unanswered calls, lengthy sales pitches, and “unexpected” early termination fees.

The FTC has begun to refer to these types of obstacles as “Dark Patterns,” a vague term the agency uses to suggest consumer “manipulation.” The agency’s recent staff report on Dark Patterns discussed subscription cancellation issues nearly identical to those in the Vonage complaint. In this regard, it is notable that the consent order resolving the Vonage matter will forbid the company from using, in connection with subscription cancellation, “a user interface that has the effect of impeding consumers’ expression of preference, manipulating consumers into taking certain action or otherwise subverting consumers’ choice.”

The consent order also reflects the FTC’s interpretation of ROSCA’s “simple” subscription cancellation requirement to require an online cancellation process for subscriptions offered online. No such requirement appears in the statute, but the FTC’s non-binding enforcement policy statement advises merchants to offer cancellation methods “at least as easy” as sign ups, and by the same medium.

The FTC’s complaint also takes aim at Vonage’s early termination fees, describing them as inadequately disclosed and used to deter cancellation. In October, the FTC announced a rulemaking to crack down on “junk fees” that inflate consumer costs without adding value. While the FTC’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking made only passing reference to cancellation fees, the FTC’s use of the term “junk fees” in its Vonage press release is more pronounced.

Photo of Yaron Dori Yaron Dori

Yaron Dori has over 25 years of experience advising technology, telecommunications, media, life sciences, and other types of companies on their most pressing business challenges. He is a former chair of the firm’s technology, communications and media practices and currently serves on the…

Yaron Dori has over 25 years of experience advising technology, telecommunications, media, life sciences, and other types of companies on their most pressing business challenges. He is a former chair of the firm’s technology, communications and media practices and currently serves on the firm’s eight-person Management Committee.

Yaron’s practice advises clients on strategic planning, policy development, transactions, investigations and enforcement, and regulatory compliance.

Early in his career, Yaron advised telecommunications companies and investors on regulatory policy and frameworks that led to the development of broadband networks. When those networks became bidirectional and enabled companies to collect consumer data, he advised those companies on their data privacy and consumer protection obligations. Today, as new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) are being used to enhance the applications and services offered by such companies, he advises them on associated legal and regulatory obligations and risks. It is this varied background – which tracks the evolution of the technology industry – that enables Yaron to provide clients with a holistic, 360-degree view of technology policy, regulation, compliance, and enforcement.

Yaron represents clients before federal regulatory agencies—including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Department of Commerce (DOC)—and the U.S. Congress in connection with a range of issues under the Communications Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and similar statutes. He also represents clients on state regulatory and enforcement matters, including those that pertain to telecommunications, data privacy, and consumer protection regulation. His deep experience in each of these areas enables him to advise clients on a wide range of technology regulations and key business issues in which these areas intersect.

With respect to technology and telecommunications matters, Yaron advises clients on a broad range of business, policy and consumer-facing issues, including:

  • Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things;
  • Broadband deployment and regulation;
  • IP-enabled applications, services and content;
  • Section 230 and digital safety considerations;
  • Equipment and device authorization procedures;
  • The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA);
  • Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) requirements;
  • The Cable Privacy Act
  • Net Neutrality; and
  • Local competition, universal service, and intercarrier compensation.

Yaron also has extensive experience in structuring transactions and securing regulatory approvals at both the federal and state levels for mergers, asset acquisitions and similar transactions involving large and small FCC and state communication licensees.

With respect to privacy and consumer protection matters, Yaron advises clients on a range of business, strategic, policy and compliance issues, including those that pertain to:

  • The FTC Act and related agency guidance and regulations;
  • State privacy laws, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and California Privacy Rights Act, the Colorado Privacy Act, the Connecticut Data Privacy Act, the Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act, and the Utah Consumer Privacy Act;
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA);
  • Location-based services that use WiFi, beacons or similar technologies;
  • Digital advertising practices, including native advertising and endorsements and testimonials; and
  • The application of federal and state telemarketing, commercial fax, and other consumer protection laws, such as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), to voice, text, and video transmissions.

Yaron also has experience advising companies on congressional, FCC, FTC and state attorney general investigations into various consumer protection and communications matters, including those pertaining to social media influencers, digital disclosures, product discontinuance, and advertising claims.

Photo of Laura Kim Laura Kim

Laura Kim draws upon her experience in senior positions at the Federal Trade Commission to advise clients across industries on complex advertising, privacy, and data security matters. She provides practical compliance advice and represents clients in FTC and State AG investigations. Ms. Kim…

Laura Kim draws upon her experience in senior positions at the Federal Trade Commission to advise clients across industries on complex advertising, privacy, and data security matters. She provides practical compliance advice and represents clients in FTC and State AG investigations. Ms. Kim advises on a wide range of consumer protection issues, including green claims, influencers, native advertising, claim substantiation, Made in USA claims, children’s privacy, subscription auto-renewal marketing, and other digital advertising matters. In addition, Ms. Kim actively practices before the NAD, including recent successful resolution of matters for both challengers and advertisers. She co-chairs Covington’s Advertising and Consumer Protection Practice Group and participates in the firm’s Internet of Things Initiative.

Ms. Kim re-joined Covington after a twelve-year tenure at the FTC, where she served as Assistant Director in two divisions of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, as well as Chief of Staff in the Bureau of Consumer Protection and Attorney Advisor to former Chairman William E. Kovacic. She worked on key FTC Rules and Guides such as the Green Guides, Jewelry Guides, and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. She supervised these and other rule making proceedings and oversaw dozens of the Commission’s investigations and enforcement actions involving compliance with these rules. Ms. Kim also supervised compliance monitoring for companies under federal court or Commission order.

Ms. Kim also served as Deputy Chief Enforcement Officer at the U.S. Department of Education, where she helped establish a new Enforcement Office within Federal Student Aid. In this role, she managed investigations of higher education institutions and oversaw issuance of fines and adverse actions for institutions in violation of federal student aid regulations. Ms. Kim also supervised the borrower defense to repayment division and the Clery campus safety and security division.

Photo of Sarah Parker Sarah Parker

Sarah Parker is an associate in the firm’s Washington Office. Her practice focuses on privacy, advertising, and consumer protection regulatory matters and government investigations.

Sarah also maintains an active pro bono practice, with a focus on criminal justice and civil rights litigation