Handing Facebook a victory, the Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously reversed a lower court ruling that would have required the company to face a lawsuit over unwanted text messages.
The Supreme Court decision could give a boost to numerous companies that have been accused of violating a consumer protection law regulating robotexts and robocalls.
The new ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by Noah Duguid in 2014, when he alleged in a class-action complaint that Facebook repeatedly notified him via text that his account had been accessed. Duguid, who says he never had an account with the service, apparently had been assigned a recycled phone number by his carrier.
Duguid claimed the messages ran afoul of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits companies from using autodialers to text people without their consent. That law, passed in 1991, provides for damages ranging from $500 to $1,500 per violation.
The legal dispute that reached the Supreme Court centered on the meaning of “autodialer.”
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act defines autodialers as equipment capable of storing or producing numbers using a random or sequential generator, and dialing those numbers. That wording left room for argument over whether equipment that stores and dials numbers could be an autodialer, or whether the equipment had to also be capable of randomly (or sequentially) generating those numbers.
Facebook argued its texting equipment didn't meet the definition of autodialer, because it didn't generate numbers randomly. Instead, the equipment allegedly generated numbers in response to specific information; in Duguid's case, the texts were allegedly sent in order to alert him about a potential security breach.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Facebook, ruling that Duguid's allegations regarding the company's texting equipment, if true, were sufficient to establish that Facebook used an autodialer to send texts.
Duguid “alleges that Facebook maintains a database of phone numbers and explains how Facebook programs its equipment to automatically generate messages to those stored numbers,” the lower-court judges wrote.
But judges in other cases, including a Pennsylvania resident's high-profile battle with Yahoo, judges came to different conclusions.
Facebook urged the Supreme Court to intervene in the lawsuit brought by Duguid, arguing that the 9th Circuit's definition of autodialer was so broad it could cover nearly all smartphones.
“The courts of appeals are in irreconcilable conflict on an important and oft-litigated question that dictates whether the statute reaches specialized robocalling equipment or every modern smartphone,” Facebook wrote last year. “Billions of dollars in liability turn on the answer.”
The Supreme Court agreed with Facebook that the 9th Circuit's definition of autodialer was too broad.
“We hold that a necessary feature of an autodialer ... is the capacity to use a random or sequential number generator to either store or produce phone numbers to be called,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court.
She added that Congress passed the robo-calling law in order to target the kind of telemarketing equipment “that risks dialing emergency lines randomly or tying up all the sequentially numbered lines” at the same business.
“Expanding the definition of an autodialer to encompass any equipment that merely stores and dials telephone numbers would take a chainsaw to these nuanced problems when Congress meant to use a scalpel,” she wrote.
While the ruling is viewed as a win for tech companies, their victory could be short-lived given that some lawmakers have vowed to introduce legislation that would effectively reverse the Supreme Court's decision.
Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) said Thursday that Congress always intended to “ban dialing from a database,” as opposed to merely banning the dialing of randomly generated numbers.
They said in a joint statement that Congress always wanted to “ban dialing from a database,” as opposed to merely banning the dialing of randomly generated numbers.
“Fortunately, we can and will act to make right what the Supreme Court got wrong,” they stated. “If the Justices find their private mobile phones ringing non-stop from now until our legislation becomes law, they’ll only have themselves to blame.”