An Appeals Court Broke Media Advertising, So The Copia Institute Asked The California Supreme Court To Fix It
from the huge-implications dept
A few months ago a California court of appeals issued a really terrible decision in Liapes v. Facebook. Liapes, a Facebook user, was unhappy that the ads delivered to her correlated with some of her characteristics, like her age. As a result there were certain ads, like one provided by an insurer offering a particular policy for men of a different age, that didn’t get delivered to her.
Of course, it didn’t get delivered to her because the advertiser likely had little interest in spending money to place an ad to reach a customer who would not and could not turn into a sale, since she would not have been eligible for the promotion. And historically advertisers in all forms of media – newspapers, television, radio, etc. – have preferred to spend their marketing budgets on media likely to reach the same sorts of people as would purchase their products and services. Which is why, as we explained to the California Supreme Court, one tends to see different ads in Seventeen Magazine than, say, AARP’s.
Because we also tend to see different expression in each one, as the publishing company chooses what content to deliver to which people. There’s no law that says media companies have to deliver content that would appeal to all people in all media channels, nor could there be constitutionally, because those choices of what expression to deliver to whom are protected by the First Amendment.
Or at least they were up until the court of appeals got its hands on the lawsuit Liapes brought against Facebook, arguing that letting advertisers choose which users would get which ads based on characteristics like age violated the state’s Unruh Act. The Unruh Act basically prevents a company from unlawfully discriminating against people for protected characteristics – if it offers a product or service to one customer it can’t refuse to offer it to another because of things like their age.
But Facebook isn’t a business that sells tangible products or non-expressive services; it is a media business, just like TV stations are, newspapers are, magazine publishers are, etc. Like these other businesses, it is in the business of delivering expression to audiences. True, it is primarily in the business of delivering others users’ expression rather than its own, and it is more likely to have the ability to deliver editorially-tailored expression on an individual level, but then again, increasingly so can traditional media. In any case, there is nothing about the First Amendment that keys it only to the characteristics of traditional media businesses producing media for the masses. After all, they themselves often choose which demographic to target with their own media. Conde Nast, for instance, publishes both GQ and Vogue, as well as TeenVogue, and it is surely using demographics of the targeted audience to decide what expression to provide them in each publication.
But the upshot of the appeals court decision, finding Unruh Act liability when a media business uses demographic information to target an audience with certain content (including advertising content), is that either no media business will be able to make any sort of editorial decision based on the demographic characteristics of their intended audience – and as a result, there goes the American advertising model that has sustained American media businesses for generations – or, even if those businesses somehow are left beyond the Unruh Act, it will introduce an artificial exception to the First Amendment to carve out a business like Facebook because… well, just because. There really is no sound rationale for treating a company like Meta differently than any other media business, but if they could be uniquely targeted by the Unruh Act, unlike their more traditional media brethren, it would still gravely impact every Internet business, especially those that monetize the expression they provide with ads.
Which would be particularly troubling because not only are businesses like Facebook supposed to be protected by the First Amendment but they are supposed to be EVEN MORE PROTECTED by Section 230, which insulates them from liability arising from the expression others provide, as well as the moderation decisions the platforms like Facebook make to choose what expression to serve audiences. The court of appeals decision impinges upon both these forms of protection, and in contravention of Section 230’s pre-emption provision, which prevents states from messing with this basic statutory scheme with its own laws, of which the Unruh Act is one. After all, if there was anything actually wrong with the ad, it was the advertiser who produced it who imbued it with its wrongful quality, not Facebook. And the decision to serve it or not is an editorially-protected moderation decision, which Facebook also should have been entitled to make without liability, per Section 230.
In sum, this California appeals court decision stands to make an enormous mess of at least online businesses, if not every media business, and not even just those who take advertising, because simply weakening Section 230 and the First Amendment itself will lead to its own dire consequences. And so the Copia Institute filed this amicus letter supporting Facebook’s petition for further review by the California Supreme Court in order to clean up this looming mess.