Legislatures, regulators, and enforcement agencies across the United States and in Germany have turned up the heat on subscription plans within the past year by updating their automatic renewal law (ARL). California and Germany have new ARL requirements starting July 1, 2022. Generally, an automatic renewal or negative option is a paid subscription plan that automatically renews at the end of the term for a subsequent term, until the subscribing consumer cancels. Many US states and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) require businesses offering subscription plans to obtain from the consumer affirmative consent to subscription plan terms, send confirmation emails with the subscription terms, send renewal notices within a set number of days prior to the plan automatically renewing, and allow consumers to easily cancel their subscriptions, among other requirements. The FTC’s enforcement power for automatic renewals rests in several laws and rules, such as Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA), and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. Although most state ARLs target business-to-consumer contracts, some states have ARLs that regulate business-to-business contracts (e.g., New York and Wisconsin). We take a look at the varying requirements of the more stringent state ARLs regulating business-to-consumer contract below. New or updated ARLs have taken effect in Colorado, Delaware, New York, and Illinois. Notably, California’s new, more stringent requirements for businesses that offer consumers automatic renewals take effect July 1, 2022.
In Europe, the EU has had several Directives relating to consumer contracts, including the Unfair Contract Terms Directive, Consumer Rights Directive, and most recently, the Digital Content Directive and Sale of Goods Directive. However, in addition to these Directives, Germany passed the Fair Consumer Contracts Act, which will place stricter regulations on automatic renewals in e-commerce. An important new practical requirement is the cancellation button, the design of which is subject to detailed requirements. Non-compliant businesses will be subject to injunctive relief from both competitors and from consumer protection associations. Further, consumers can cancel contracts at any time if the business is non-compliant. Some of the provisions of the Fair Consumer Contracts Act entered into force on October 1, 2021, however, the implementation of the cancellation button is mandatory July 1, 2022, the same effective date as California’s updated ARL.
Updates to Laws
Last year, New York strengthened its business-to-consumer ARL to include additional consent, disclosure, and cancellation requirements. In addition to this updated business-to-consumer ARL, New York’s original ARL covers business-to-business contracts “for service, maintenance or repair to or for any real or personal property” where the renewal period is longer than a month. New York’s enhanced ARL, which went into effect in 2021, has some notable new requirements for businesses that we have seen in other state consumer protection laws, including omnibus privacy laws:
- Obtain “affirmative consent” to the terms, including the cancellation policy, (which are clearly and conspicuously disclosed in “visual” or “temporal” proximity to the consent mechanism) prior to charging a consumer for an automatic renewal. Failure to obtain this consent will deem the “goods, wares, merchandise, or products” as “unconditional gifts to the consumer, who may dispose of the [gift] in any manner he or she sees fit without any obligation whatsoever on the consumer’s part to the business.” §527-a(6).
- “Clear[ly] and conspicuous[ly]” disclose the “terms, cancellation policy, and information regarding how to cancel in a manner that is capable of being retained by the consumer.” §527-a(1)(c). Think of this as a requirement to send a confirmation email or letter to the subscribing consumer. If the subscription includes a free gift, the business should provide the ability and include instructions in the confirmation for the consumer to cancel before being charged for the good or service.
- Allow cancellation online of subscriptions purchased online, as well as “cost-effective, timely, and easy-to-use mechanism for cancellation” for subscriptions not purchased online. §527-a(2)-(3).
Indicating that automatic renewals are an enforcement priority, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a consumer alert in November 2021, reminding consumers and businesses that New York has updated its ARL for business-to-consumer contracts.
In October 2021, the FTC issued an enforcement policy statement “warning companies against deploying illegal dark patterns that trick or trap consumers into subscription services.” The enforcement policy states that sellers should obtain a consumer’s unambiguous affirmative consent for the automatic renewal. You can read our other coverage of dark patterns here.
Also in October 2021, California enacted its enhanced ARL that has an operative date of July 1, 2022. In the enhanced ARL, California has required additional consent, disclosure, and cancellation requirements on businesses that offer automatic renewals. Notably, California’s ARL will soon require:
- Businesses must provide a notice (i.e. an email or letter to the consumer stating that the automatic renewal will automatically renew) that clearly and conspicuously discloses (a) the renewal will occur “unless the consumer cancels,” (b) the length of the additional term, (c) how the consumer may cancel, (d) if sent electronically, a link that directs the consumer to the cancellation process or another electronic method to cancel, and (e) the contact information for the business. §17602(a)(4).
- Notice timing.
- Notice must be provided 3 to 21 days before the expiration of a free gift or trial period lasting more than 31 days. §17602(b)(1).
- Notice must be provided 15 to 45 days prior to the renewal for automatic renewals with subscriptions one year or longer, under certain conditions. §17602(b)(2).
- Easy-to-use cancellation. Consumers subscribing online, must be allowed to cancel online, “at will, and without engaging in any further steps that obstruct or delay the consumer’s ability to terminate” the subscription immediately. Businesses shall provide (a) “a prominently located direct link or button” located in the account profile, or device or user settings; (b) a preformatted termination email that the “consumer can send to the business without additional information.” §17602(d)(1). Businesses can require account authentication prior to cancelling the account online, but consumers can still cancel through the other methods outlined elsewhere in California’s ARL.
Many other states and Washington, D.C. have similar consent, disclosure, and cancellation requirements in their existing or recently updated automatic renewal laws. For instance, Colorado’s ARL became effective January 1, 2022, and requires notices be sent to consumers 25 to 45 days prior to the “first automatic renewal that would extend the contract beyond a continuous twelve-month period,” as well as any subsequent renewal that would extend the contract past the additional twelve-month period. Delaware also enacted an ARL which has specific notice and disclosure requirements. Illinois’ enhanced ARL, which became effective January 1, 2022, now includes a requirement for cancellation instructions and mechanisms in the renewal notice, and requires an online cancellation option for consumers that subscribe online.
With the passage of the Fair Consumer Contracts Act (Gesetz für faire Verbraucherverträge), the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – “BGB”) was amended to include stricter rules on tacit contract renewals (automatic renewals) for certain businesses. Sect. 309 No. 9 lit. b BGB. Notably, as of July 1, 2022, businesses offering subscriptions must provide a cancellation button on their websites. There are specific requirements including:
- The button must be legibly labeled a phrase like “Cancel contract here.”
- The button must lead the consumer to a confirmation page that meets specific requirements, such as allowing the consumer to provide identifying information, cancellation reason, and subscription end date.
- The button and confirmation page must be permanently available, and immediately and easily accessible (i.e., clear and conspicuous).
- The business must allow the consumer to document the request for termination (e.g., by means of a downloadable summary of the data and time the cancellation button was pressed) and provide the consumer with an electronic receipt of the request, including the date of the cancellation request and the date on which the subscription is to be cancelled.
- If the consumer does not specify a time for cancellation, the termination date must be the earliest date possible.
If a business fails to follow these cancellation requirements, a German consumer may terminate a contract at any time and without observing a notice period.
Enforcement and Class Action Threat
Violations of automatic renewal laws are typically addressed by government enforcement actions. However, there have been a number of large class action settlements over the past few years that alleged illegal automatic renewal programs in newspaper and magazine subscription programs. Recently, a lawsuit alleging violations of state consumer protection laws, as well as California’s ARL, based on a wellness company’s deceptive trial periods and consumers’ difficulty in cancelling and getting a refund, settled for over $50m. Although this class action alleged a violation of California’s ARL, several courts have found there is no independent private right of action in the California ARL. See Johnson v. Pluralsight, LLC, 728 F. App’x 674, 676 (9th Cir. 2018); Lopez v. YP Holdings, LLC, 2019 WL 7905748, *4 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 23, 2019); Mayron v. Google LLC, No. H044592, 2020 WL 5494245 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 11, 2020). Private litigants may attempt to bring automatic renewal lawsuits under different consumer protection statutes, such as California’s Unfair Competition Law. See Morrell v. WW Int’l, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 3d 173, 182 (2nd Cir. 2021).
As to state government enforcement, the state attorney general usually enforces the ARL. In California, the state Attorney General, District Attorneys, County Attorneys, City Prosecutors, and City Attorneys can enforce the state’s ARL. But as noted above, private litigants may still try to bring an ARL claim under another consumer protection statute, such as a law prohibiting unfair or deceptive trade practices. Some states explicitly allow private rights of action in their ARL (e.g., Virginia).
The ramification for failing to comply with the state ARL varies by state. States, such as New York and Connecticut, have clauses in their ARLs that proscribe failure to comply with certain requirements means that the good or service is an unconditional gift, which would prevent the non-complying business from collecting from the consumer for non-payment. Florida, for example, states that a violation of the ARL “renders the automatic renewal provision void and unenforceable.”
In addition to state enforcement, it is likely that the FTC will be looking more closely at automatic renewal programs in 2022 based on the October 2021 enforcement statement. For example, on March 8, 2022, the FTC announced a settlement with an online investment site for more than $2.4m based on allegations of bogus stock earnings claims and hard-to-cancel subscription plans, in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act and Section 4 of ROSCA. The FTC’s press release notes that the settlement “continues the FTC’s crackdown on false earnings claims, returning millions to consumers and requiring click-to-cancel online subscriptions” signaling that more enforcement actions may be on the horizon and online cancellation is an FTC requirement for online subscriptions.
The consent, disclosure, and cancellation requirements vary by state and businesses should be vigilant in complying with the state specific requirements. Businesses that offer subscription plans should ensure that customers are notified of the automatic renewal provision prior to beginning the transaction. Businesses should obtain a subscribing customer’s affirmative consent to the automatic renewal provision and send the subscriber a descriptive confirmation email after the initial purchase. Consumers should also receive a renewal notice prior to the subscription automatically renewing. Finally, businesses must be cautious of the difference between clever marketing and dark patterns in the subscription process.
These enhanced ARL requirements are already the law in certain states, and will soon be required of businesses selling automatic renewals to Californians. Businesses should implement the best practices outlined above as soon as possible, and prior to July 1, 2022, if subject to California’s law.
In Germany, we recommend that businesses review their subscription terms and conditions to ensure that no stipulations can be construed to bar consumers from using the cancellation button, and ensure that the cancellation flow complies with Germany’s specific requirements, prior to July 1, 2022.
For more information, please contact the authors or your usual point of contact at Squire Patton Boggs.