9523331
B235413

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
BEFORE FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION

COMMISSIONERS:
Robert Pitofsky, Chairman
Mary L. Azcuenaga
Sheila F. Anthony
Mozelle W. Thompson
Orson Swindle

In the Matter of

AMERICA ONLINE, INC., a corporation.

DOCKET NO. C-3787

DECISION AND ORDER

The Federal Trade Commission having initiated an investigation of certain acts and practices of the respondent named in the caption hereof, and the respondent having been furnished thereafter with a copy of a draft complaint which the Bureau of Consumer Protection proposed to present to the Commission for its consideration and which, if issued by the Commission, would charge the respondent with violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act and its implementing Regulation E; and

The respondent, its attorneys, and counsel for the Commission having thereafter executed an agreement containing a consent order, an admission by the respondent of all the jurisdictional facts set forth in the aforesaid draft of complaint, a statement that the signing of said agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the respondent that the law has been violated as alleged in such complaint, or that the facts as alleged in such complaint, other than jurisdictional facts, are true and waivers and other provisions as required by the Commission’s Rules; and

The Commission having thereafter considered the matter and having determined that it had reason to believe that the respondent has violated the said Acts and Regulation, and that a complaint should issue stating its charges in that respect, and having thereupon accepted the executed consent agreement and placed such agreement on the public record for a period of sixty (60) days, now in further conformity with the procedure prescribed in Section 2.34 of its Rules, the Commission hereby issues its complaint, makes the following jurisdictional findings and enters the following order:

  1. Respondent America Online, Inc. is a Delaware corporation, with its principal office or place of business at 22000 AOL Way, Dulles, VA 20166.
  2. The Federal Trade Commission has jurisdiction of the subject matter of this proceeding and of the respondent, and the proceeding is in the public interest.

ORDER

DEFINITIONS

For purposes of this order, the following terms shall have the meanings set forth below, unless specifically stated otherwise:

  1. “Account” means a demand deposit (checking), savings, or other consumer asset account (other than an occasional or incidental credit balance in a credit plan) held either directly or indirectly by a Financial Institution, as defined below, and established primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.
  2. “Financial Institution” means a State or National bank, a State or Federal savings and loan association, a mutual savings bank, a State or Federal credit union, or any other person who, directly or indirectly, holds an Account belonging to a consumer.
  3. “Consumer” means a natural person or other entity which may be billed for online services; provided that, for purposes of Paragraphs V, VI, and VIII(A) of this order, “Consumer” shall only mean a natural person.
  4. “Electronic Fund Transfer,” as defined by the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, 15 U.S.C. 1693a(6), means any transfer of funds, other than a transaction originated by check, draft, or similar paper instrument, which is initiated through an electronic terminal, telephone, or computer or magnetic tape so as to order, instruct, or authorize a Financial Institution to debit or credit an Account, except that it does not mean a transaction made using a debit card or debit card account which a consumer has identified as a credit card or credit card account.
  5. “Online Service” shall mean a Respondent-Controlled access, information, communication, or transaction service which is made available to Consumers as a paid service via connection by computers, modems, or other means, to a proprietary or non-proprietary network of telecommunication or computer facilities.
  6. Unless otherwise specified, “Respondent” shall mean America Online, Inc., its successors and assigns, and its officers, agents, servants, divisions, and employees.
  7. “Respondent-Controlled” shall mean Respondent makes the management decisions affecting compliance with the provisions of this order.
  8. “In or affecting commerce” shall mean as defined in Section 4 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. 44.

I.

IT IS ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent-Controlled corporation, subsidiary or other device, in connection with the advertising, promotion, offering for sale, sale, or distribution of any Online Service in or affecting commerce, shall not misrepresent, expressly or by implication, the terms or conditions of any trial offer of any Online Service.

II.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, in connection with the advertising, promotion, offering for sale, sale, or distribution of any Online Service in or affecting commerce, shall not represent, expressly or by implication, that the Online Service is offered “free,” “without risk,” “without charge,” “without further obligation,” or words of similar import denoting or implying the absence of any obligation on the part of the recipient of such offer to pay for the Online Service unless Respondent discloses clearly and prominently any obligation of the recipient to cancel or take other affirmative action to avoid charges for use of the Online Service.

Provided, that for purposes of this Paragraph II, “clearly and prominently” shall mean with respect to any representation, described in the foregoing paragraph and made in Respondent’s detailed instructional materials (e.g., starter kits, guidebooks) distributed to Consumers, a disclosure in a type size and in a location that are sufficiently noticeable so that an ordinary Consumer could notice, read, and comprehend it.

Provided, further, that for purposes of this Paragraph II, “clearly and prominently” shall mean, as to any representation described above in this Paragraph, apart from any representation covered by the preceding proviso, and made in the context of any advertisement or promotion of the Online Service through any media, including radio, television or other broadcast media, direct mail, interactive network (except as provided in Paragraph IV below), or print media (including promotion packages attached thereto), a statement directing Consumers to a location where the disclosure required herein will be available (e.g., “For conditions and membership details,” followed by: “load up trial software” or “see registration process” or words of similar effect.) In the case of an audio statement, the statement shall be delivered in a volume and cadence sufficient for an ordinary Consumer to notice, hear, and comprehend it. In the case of a video statement, the statement shall be of a size and shade and shall appear for a duration sufficient for an ordinary Consumer to notice, read, and comprehend it. In the case of print media, the statement shall be in a type size and in a location sufficient for an ordinary Consumer to notice, read, and comprehend it.

Nothing contrary to, inconsistent with, or in mitigation of the disclosure shall be permitted.

III.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, in connection with the advertising, promotion, offering for sale, sale, distribution of, or billing for any Online Service in or affecting commerce, shall not misrepresent, expressly or by implication, the fees or charges assessed for such Online Service.

IV.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, in connection with the advertising, promotion, offering for sale, sale, distribution of, or billing for any Online Service in or affecting commerce, shall disclose, clearly and prominently, during the final registration process, and prior to the Consumer incurring any financial obligation or liability to Respondent, the terms of all mandatory financial obligations to Respondent which will be incurred by the Consumer as a result of using such Online Service, including but not limited to the following:

A. The financial terms and conditions of any plan or practice (e.g., trial offer) by which Consumers enroll in or renew enrollment in such Online Service and by which, accordingly, Respondent charges the Consumer; provided, that if such plan or practice exists, Respondent must also disclose clearly and prominently any obligation of the recipient to cancel or take other affirmative action to avoid charges for use of the Online Service and provide at least one reasonable means by which the Consumer may effectively cancel his or her enrollment by a date certain and thereby avoid further charges;

B. Any mandatory membership, enrollment, or usage fees (e.g., monthly or hourly usage charges); and

C. The manner in which such fees or charges are assessed and calculated, provided, that Respondent may satisfy this provision by disclosing that: (i) additional charges might apply; (ii) information about assessing and calculating the Consumer’s fees or charges can be found online; and (iii) the exact location, such as the particular area online (e.g., Keyword: Billing), where Consumers can find detailed information about assessing and calculating the Consumer’s fees or charges.

Provided, however, that for purposes of this paragraph IV, a disclosure is “clearly and prominently” made if it is of a size and shade, and appears for a duration sufficient for an ordinary Consumer to notice, read, and comprehend it. In addition to the foregoing, such disclosure shall not be avoidable by Consumers. Provided, further, that such disclosure shall not be deemed avoidable for purposes of this Order based solely on an ordinary Consumer’s failure to read it.

Nothing contrary to, inconsistent with, or in mitigation of the disclosure shall be permitted.

V.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, in connection with any Electronic Fund Transfer from any Consumer Account, shall not misrepresent the terms or conditions of such Electronic Fund Transfer.

VI.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, in connection with any Electronic Fund Transfer from any Consumer Account, shall not:

A. Fail to obtain Consumer authorization before initiating any Electronic Fund Transfer from any Consumer Account as required by Section 907(a) of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, 15 U.S.C. 1693e(a), and Section 205.10(b) of Regulation E, 12 C.F.R. 205.10(b), as more fully set out in Section 205.10 of the Federal Reserve Board's Official Staff Commentary to Regulation E, 12 C.F.R. 205, Supp. I.

B. Fail to provide any Consumer with advance notice of Electronic Fund Transfers from the Consumer's Account varying in amount from previous transfers as required by Section 907(b) of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, 15 U.S.C. 1693e(b), and Section 205.10(d) of Regulation E, 12 C.F.R. 205.10(d), as more fully set out in Section 205.10 of the Federal Reserve Board's Official Staff Commentary to Regulation E, 12 C.F.R. 205, Supp. I.

VII.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, shall, for five (5) years after the last date of dissemination of any representation covered by Paragraphs I - V of this order, maintain and upon request make available to the Federal Trade Commission for inspection and copying business records demonstrating compliance with the terms and provisions of this order, except as provided for in Paragraph VIII of this order, including, but not limited to:

A. All advertisements, promotional materials, and instructional materials distributed or accessible to Consumers containing the representation;

B. For five (5) years after the date of receipt or generation, all written complaints from Consumers, governmental or consumer protection organizations and responses thereto; provided, however, that in lieu of maintaining all electronic mail communications, Respondent may comply with this provision by maintaining a representative sample of such communications.

VIII.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, shall, for two (2) years after the date of issuance of this order, maintain and upon request make available to the Federal Trade Commission for inspection and copying:

A. All documents pertaining to Respondent's use of Electronic Fund Transfers from Consumer Accounts, including written complaints from Consumers, governmental or consumer protection organizations and responses thereto; provided, however, in lieu of maintaining all electronic mail communications, Respondent may comply with this provision by maintaining a representative sample of such communications; and

B. All business records which demonstrate Respondent’s compliance with Paragraph VI of this order; provided, however, in lieu of maintaining all electronic mail communications, Respondent may comply with this provision by maintaining a representative sample of such communications.

IX.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, and its successors and assigns shall deliver a copy of this order to all current and future principals, officers, directors, senior managers (e.g., vice-presidents or above), and agents (including, without limitation, advertising agencies) having responsibilities with respect to the subject matter of this order, and shall secure from each such person a signed and dated statement acknowledging receipt of the order. Respondent and its successors and assigns, shall prepare a summary of this order, and shall distribute a copy of that summary to all current and future managers with responsibilities or duties affecting compliance with the terms of this order.

X.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, shall notify the Commission at least thirty (30) days prior to any change in the corporation that may affect compliance obligations arising under this order, including but not limited to dissolution, assignment, sale, merger, or other action that would result in the emergence of a successor corporation; the creation or dissolution of a parent or Respondent-Controlled subsidiary or Respondent-Controlled affiliate that engages in any acts or practices subject to this order; the proposed filing of a bankruptcy petition; or a change in the corporate name or address. Provided, however, that, with respect to any proposed change in the corporation about which Respondent learns less than thirty (30) days prior to the date such action is to take place, Respondent shall notify the Commission as soon as is practicable after obtaining such knowledge. All notices required by this Part shall be sent by certified mail to the Associate Director, Division of Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.

XI.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondent, directly or through any Respondent- Controlled corporation, subsidiary, or other device, shall, within sixty (60) days after the date of service of this order, and at such other times as the Federal Trade Commission may require, file with the Commission a report, in writing, setting forth in detail the manner and form in which it has complied with this order.

XII.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that, no later than six (6) months from the effective date of this order, Respondent shall establish and implement a program to educate Consumers about Consumer use of electronic payment systems. Such program:

A. May be established jointly with, or under the auspices of, an appropriate trade association or other consumer education program (e.g., Project Open);

B. Shall have a duration of not less than one (1) year from the date of implementation;

C. Shall be of a scope and employ media reasonably necessary to reach a wide audience of Consumers, including but not limited to:

  1. At least 50,000 color brochures designed, produced, printed, and disseminated by Respondent directly to Consumers and organizations with direct access to Consumers likely to use electronic payments systems;
  2. The Internet;
  3. Reference on Respondent’s Online Service; and
  4. A direct link to the Internet from Respondent’s Online Service; and

D. Shall include, but not be limited to, information about: various types of electronic payment systems available to Consumers; obligations of Consumers, merchants, and Financial Institutions in using such systems; how such payment systems are used, including the means by which Consumers may attempt to prevent the fraudulent use of those systems; various legal protections available to Consumers under each system; and organizations, including law enforcement agencies, from which Consumers may obtain further information or assistance.

No later than ninety (90) days from the date of issuance of this order, Respondent shall submit for review and approval to the Associate Director, Division of Credit Practices, a draft plan for the program and drafts of any materials to be disseminated pursuant to Paragraph XII(C) above. Such approval shall not be unreasonably withheld. Such description and materials should be sent by overnight delivery to the Associate Director, Division of Credit Practices, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.

XIII.

This order will terminate on March 16, 2018, or twenty (20) years from the most recent date that the United States or the Federal Trade Commission files a complaint (with or without an accompanying consent decree) in federal court alleging any violation of the order, whichever comes later; provided, however, that the filing of such a complaint will not affect the duration of:

A. Any Part in this order that terminates in less than twenty (20) years;

B. This order's application to any Respondent that is not named as a defendant in such complaint; and

C. This order if such complaint is filed after the order has terminated pursuant to this Part.

Provided, further, that if such complaint is dismissed or a federal court rules that the Respondent did not violate any provision of the order, and the dismissal or ruling is either not appealed or upheld on appeal, then the order will terminate according to this Part as though the complaint had never been filed, except that the order will not terminate between the date such complaint is filed and the later of the deadline for appealing such dismissal or ruling and the date such dismissal or ruling is upheld on appeal.

By the Commission, Commissioner Azcuenaga not participating.

Donald S. Clark
Secretary

SEAL

ISSUED: March 16, 1998