You’ve really got to commend Michael Snow for his creative thinking. A few years ago, DirecTV sued Snow in Florida federal court, alleging that he had illegally intercepted DirecTV’s satellite signal. The case was dismissed, but Snow apparently held a grudge.
Not being satisfied with merely setting up a gripe site to air his grievances against DirecTV and so-called “corporate extortion,” Snow went a step further. He set up a “private support group” website for “individuals who have been, are being, or will be sued by any Corporate entity.” The language on the home page expressly forbade access “by DIRECTV and its agents.” To actually visit the site, you had to establish a username and password, and enter into a click-wrap agreement wherein you promised you had nothing to do with DirecTV.
Some employees of DirecTV as well as some attorneys from a couple of the firms that had represented DirecTV found Snow’s site and, notwithstanding the prohibition against their entry, signed up and went on in. After Snow discovered this “unauthorized” access, he filed suit against DirecTV and its law firms, alleging that the defendants had unlawfully accessed the stored web pages in violation of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. §2701 et seq.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida tossed out Snow’s suit on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. It held that the pages of the website were not “in electronic storage,” and thus could not be protected from unauthorized access under the Stored Communications Act. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal, but on different grounds.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act provides that “[i]t shall not be unlawful . . . for any person – (1) to intercept or access an electronic communication made through an electronic communication system that is configured so that such electronic communication is readily accessible to the general public.”
The court held that the way Snow had set up the entry page of his site was not sufficient to take it out of the class of electronic communications that are “readily accessible to the general public.” Apparently, the mechanism Snow had established to exclude certain people was too passive.
Unlike the case of Konop v. Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., 302 F.3d 868 (9th Cir. 2002), which was a case involving a site where users had to demonstrate knowledge not publicly available in order to gain access, Snow’s site employed a mere “self-screening methodology” by which “unintended users would voluntarily excuse themselves.” The court indicated that Snow needed a stronger safeguard than the honor-system method he used. “A short simple statement that the plaintiff screens the registrants before granting access may have been sufficient to infer that the website was not configured to be readily accessible to the general public.”
So the key seems to lie in the screening process. The case doesn’t provide a whole lot of guidance on what level of screening is necessary to make a site off-limits to the general public. Nonetheless, the holding of the case, along with the holding of Konop, seems to indicate that it’s easier from a legal standpoint to partition off a portion of the Internet for a specific crowd, rather than open it up to everyone while excluding just a few individuals.
Snow v. DirecTV, Inc., — F.3d —, 2006 WL 1493817 (11th Cir., June 1, 2006).