Websites’ Terms of Use Agreement Traps

In response to the steady increase in online shopping and cyber-transactions, several website owners have resorted to implementing more precarious measures to increase website activity while still protecting the website’s legal interests.  Generally, “Terms and Conditions” of use for the website are accepted by forcing the user to manually click an “I Agree” or “Accept” button—a method termed in the industry as “Clickwrap” agreements.  This method of acceptance has been highly criticized for the manner in which it seemingly misleads consumers into accepting terms of which they are not fully aware.

More recently, however, many online shoppers have been forced to deal with a newer form of terms acceptance known as “Browsewrap” agreements.  Unlike the more readily-apparent “Clickwrap” agreements, “Browsewrap” agreements allow website owners to indiscreetly cache the content of such agreements somewhere on the website, which then become accessible only by clicking on the hidden hyperlink.

These “Browsewrap” agreements recently came under heavy judicial scrutiny when the online shopping website Zappos.com attempted to compel arbitration in a lawsuit with several customers whose online accounts had been hacked.  See In re Zappos.com, Inc., Customer Data Security Breach Litigation, Civ. No. 3:12-cv-00352-RCJ-VPC (D. Nev. Sept. 27, 2012).  Zappos.com’s “Disputes” section, which was buried within the site’s “Browsewrap” agreement, permitted Zappos to compel arbitration in the event a dispute arose between the website and the purchaser.

Despite the broad and liberal federal policy favoring arbitration, the District Court of Nevada maintained that “arbitration is a ‘matter of contract,’ and no party may be required to submit to arbitration [in] ‘any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit.’”  Id. (quoting Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolders, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 79 (2002).

In finding for the plaintiffs, the court struck down the arbitration provision because (1) the purchasers were never prompted to accept those terms and conditions, and (2) the provision permitted Zappos to unilaterally change the terms, thereby rendering the contract illusory.  The court’s ruling reinforced the notion that, notwithstanding the increased popularity of buying and selling on the Internet, such paradigmatic shift may not overcome even the basic principles of contractual formation (i.e., offer, acceptance, meeting of the minds, and consideration).  As such, the Zappos.com opinion appears to have essentially negated the enforceability of “Browsewrap” agreements, barring evidence that the user actually possessed constructive knowledge of their existence and terms of use.

Authored by: Scott A. Meyer and John Sokatch.

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Chalker Flores, LLP provides intellectual property, business, corporate and litigation legal services of the highest quality.  Founded by Dr. Edwin Flores and Daniel Chalker, additional partners include Scott Meyer, Chainey Singleton and Tom Jacks.  The lawyers of Chalker Flores, LLP provide big-firm expertise with boutique service and pricing.  Clients include individual inventors, start-ups, spin-offs, major national universities, research institutes and medium to large corporations.

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