Analysis of Proposed Consent Order to Aid Public Comment
The Federal Trade Commission has accepted, subject to final approval, an agreement containing a consent order from Gateway, Inc. ("Gateway").
The proposed consent order has been placed on the public record for thirty (30) days for receipt of comments by interested persons. Comments received during this period will become part of the public record. After thirty (30) days, the Commission will again review the agreement and the comments received, and will decide whether it should withdraw from the agreement or make final the agreement's proposed order.
Gateway advertises and sells personal computers, computer peripherals, software, and Internet services to the public. This matter concerns allegedly false and deceptive advertising of Gateway's Internet access service, "Gateway.net." The Commission's proposed complaint alleges that Gateway advertised that with the purchase of certain computer models, Gateway.net Internet access service would be included for free for one year, or could be purchased for a flat fee, such as $14.95 a month. In fact, for many consumers one year of Gateway.net was not free or obtainable for a flat fee, because these customers incurred long distance charges to access Gateway.net, or were charged $3.95 per hour by Gateway for the use of a "toll-free" telephone number to access the service. The Commission's proposed complaint challenges these "free" or "flat-fee" ads as both misrepresentations and as failures to disclose material facts under Section 5 of the FTC Act. Further, the complaint alleges that Gateway falsely represented that the use of its "toll free" 1-888 number to connect to the Internet was free to consumers. In fact, Gateway charged consumers $3.95 per hour for the use of this "toll-free" number.
The proposed consent order contains provisions designed to prevent Gateway from engaging in similar acts and practices in the future. Part I of the proposed order prohibits the company from misrepresenting the price or cost of any Internet access service, or of any "toll-free" telephone number. Under the order, the term "Internet access service" is defined as "any service that enables a consumer to access the Internet or any other electronic network."
Part II of the order prohibits representations regarding the price or cost of any "1-800" or "toll-free" telephone number provided to the consumer by Gateway unless it discloses, clearly and conspicuously, the dollar amounts of any hourly surcharges and any other fees it charges for the use of such numbers. Part III of the proposed order requires that Gateway clearly and prominently disclose that consumers may have to pay long distance telephone charges, hourly surcharges, or other costs in excess of local telephone service charges to access any Internet access service. Gateway must disclose the dollar amounts of any such fees within its control or the control of any of its promotional partners providing the service. It must also provide a means for each consumer to ascertain whether he or she would incur such fees to access the service, and inform consumers that they should contact their local telephone company to determine whether using the access telephone number for the location closest to them will result in charges in excess of local telephone service charges.
Part IV of the order requires that Gateway maintain customer support to answer consumer inquiries regarding any Internet access service, including but not limited to, an adequately staffed toll-free number where consumers can determine whether they have a local access number for such service.
Part V is a redress provision requiring that Gateway refund all charges for "toll free" numbers paid by local access plan gateway.net customers who registered for the plan between January 19, and April 1, 1999, and who paid such fees up until August 15, 1999. Parts VI through IX of the proposed order contain the usual reporting and compliance provisions, and, Part X is a provision "sunsetting" the order after twenty years, with certain exceptions.
The purpose of this analysis is to facilitate public comment on the proposed order. It is not intended to constitute an official interpretation of the agreement and proposed order or to modify in any way their terms.