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When using Google, many of us bypass the ads on the right hand side of the screen. New Jersey resident Jenna Goddard found one such offer for “free ringtones” too good to pass up, and entered her phone number into a site offering free ringtones. Her prize? A monthly subscription fee on behalf of the fraudulent site.
The site had been placed using AdWords, a Google platform that offers pay-per-click advertising. Businesses design their own advertisements, select which keywords or phrases will lead potential customers to the ads, and determine how much they are willing to pay-per-click.
Ms. Goddard filed suit against Google in federal court, arguing that she was a third party beneficiary to the contract between Google and AdWords users and was harmed when Google violated its stated policy that ads must direct web users to sites with accurate pricing information.
San Jose District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel dismissed the claim, holding that the Communications Decency Act barred Google from any liability for such ads created through AdWords. Fogel stated:
“Providing third parties with neutral tools to create web content is considered to be squarely within the protections of [the law]. Even if a service provider knows that third parties are using such tools to create illegal content, the service provider’s failure to intervene is immunized.”
Goddard is certainly not the only web user to be deceived by advertisements offering “free services” that end up charging on a monthly basis. In fact, just last week, the Florida Attorney General accepted a $1 million settlement from Media Breakaway for not properly alerting web users to the prices associated with “free” media content.
Although such fraudulent or deceptively “unclear” sites frustrate consumers, Fogel’s decision seems to imply that citizens will find it difficult to fight providers who facilitate such advertisers in federal courts based on the application of the Communications Decency Act. Thus, consumers only recourse may be to go after the advertisers themselves.
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