Refunds for Minors, Parents, and Guardians for Purchases of Facebook Credits

On May 26, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California approved the settlement of a class action against Facebook involving in-app purchases of Facebook Credits by minor children. The case was maintained on behalf of a class of children who were Facebook users (“child users”) below the age of 18 from whose Facebook accounts Facebook Credits were purchased. The case was filed by two minor children through their parents on February 23, 2012. The two children and the class were represented by attorneys Brooks Cutter and John R. Parker of the Cutter Law Firm in Sacramento, California; Daniel B. Edelman of the firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, D.C.; and Benjamin Edelman, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School. On March 10, 2015, the Court certified the case as a class action for purposes of declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of all minor children who were users of Facebook from whose Facebook accounts Facebook Credits were purchased at any time between February 23, 2008 and the date of the certification order, March 10, 2015. At the same time, the Court declined to certify a class action for purposes of class-wide monetary relief.

During the period covered by the suit, hundreds of thousands of child users purchased Facebook Credits for use in playing Facebook-based games and applications. To make such purchases, child users generally used credit cards, debit cards or other payment instruments that belonged to their parents or other responsible adults. Facebook made a practice of retaining the payment information provided at the time of the child user’s initial purchase for easy use in later purchases. Facebook advised that purchases by children were to be made only with the permission of the parent or guardian. Facebook did not, however, require evidence that any of the purchases was actually authorized by the parent, guardian or owner of the payment instrument. In many instances, the child user did not have authorization to use the card or other payment instrument to purchase Facebook Credits. Facebook specified in its terms of use that all transactions are “final”. It later stated that all transactions are “final except as otherwise required by law”.

Facebook’s Terms of Use state that purchase transactions are governed by the law of California. The Family Code of California provides that contracts with minors are voidable by the minor at any time before attaining the age of 18 or within a reasonable time thereafter. The court applied that principle to this case: “The law shields minors from their lack of judgment and experience and under certain conditions vests in them the right to disaffirm their contracts. Although in many instances such disaffirmance may be a hardship upon those who deal with an infant, the right to avoid his contracts is conferred by law upon a minor for his protection against his own improvidence and the designs of others. It is the policy of the law to protect a minor against himself and his indiscretions and immaturity as well as against the machinations of other people and to discourage adults from contracting with an infant.” (MTD decision, October 25, 2012, at pp. 11-12.) The court continued: “[O]ne who provides a minor with goods and services does so at her own risk.” (Id. at p.12.)

Facebook defended the claims in part by arguing that kids had received and used the electronic goods they paid for. The court specifically rejected this reasoning, finding that kids are entitled to refunds even for items they used. “Under California law, a minor may disaffirm all obligations under a contract, even for services previously rendered, without restoring consideration or the value of services rendered to the other party.” (MTD Decision at p.14, internal quotation marks omitted)

Prior to the settlement, Facebook provided an online procedure for refund requests in various specific circumstances such as fraudulent use of a user’s account by a third-party. Facebook’s refund procedure did not include an option to request a refund on the ground that the purchase was made when the user was a minor.

The settlement requires Facebook to apply refund practices and policies with respect to U.S. minors that comply with the California Family Code.

The settlement further requires Facebook to “add to its refund request form for In-App Purchases for U.S. users a checkbox or substantially similar functionality with accompanying text such that users are able to indicate that the In-App Purchases for which they are seeking a refund was made when the user was minor.”

The settlement additionally requires Facebook to “implement a dedicated queue within Facebook to address refund requests in In-App Purchases, made by U.S. Minors subject to verification of minority. The employees staffing the dedicated queue will receive further training regarding how to analyze and process such refund requests in accordance with applicable law.”

If you or your minor child were charged for Facebook credits purchased from an account belonging to someone age 17 or younger, you may be entitled to obtain refunds for such purchases through the use of the dedicated queue established by Facebook as a result of the settlement. Both minor account holders and the parents and guardians of such minors are entitled to claim such refunds. Claim refunds via the Facebook refund tool.

Free access to selected case documents via Archive.org.

Price Coherence and Excessive Intermediation

Edelman, Benjamin, and Julian Wright. “Price Coherence and Excessive Intermediation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 130, no. 3 (August 2015): 1283-1328. (First circulated as Price Coherence and Adverse Intermediation in December 2013.)

Suppose an intermediary provides a benefit to buyers when they purchase from sellers using the intermediary’s technology. We develop a model to show that the intermediary would want to restrict sellers from charging buyers more for transactions it intermediates. With this restriction an intermediary can profitably raise demand for its services by eliminating any extra price buyers face for purchasing through the intermediary. We show that this leads to inflated retail prices, excessive adoption of the intermediaries’ services, over-investment in benefits to buyers, and a reduction in consumer surplus and sometimes welfare. Competition among intermediaries intensifies these problems by increasing the magnitude of their effects and broadening the circumstances in which they arise. We discuss applications to payment card systems, travel reservation systems, rebate services, and various other intermediaries.

Markets with Price Coherence

Edelman, Benjamin, and Julian Wright. “Markets with Price Coherence.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 15-061, January 2015. (Revised March 2015.) (Supplement to “Price Coherence and Excessive Intermediation.”)

In markets with price coherence, the purchase of a given good via an intermediary is constrained to occur at the same price as a purchase of that same good directly from the seller (or through another competing intermediary). We examine ten markets with price coherence, including their origin and outcomes as well as concerns and policy interventions.

Bitcoin: Economics, Technology, and Governance

B√∂hme, Rainer, Nicolas Christin, Benjamin Edelman, and Tyler Moore. “Bitcoin: Economics, Technology, and Governance.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 29, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 213-238.

Bitcoin is an online communication protocol that facilitates virtual currency including electronic payments. Since its inception in 2009 by an anonymous group of developers, Bitcoin has served tens of millions of transactions with total dollar value in the billions. Users have been drawn to Bitcoin for its decentralization, intentionally relying on no single server or set of servers to store transactions and also avoiding any single party that can ban certain participants or certain types of transactions. Bitcoin is of interest to economists in part for its potential to disrupt existing payment systems and perhaps monetary systems as well as for the wealth of data it provides about agents’ behavior and about the Bitcoin system itself. This article presents the platform’s design principles and properties for a non-technical audience; reviews its past, present, and future uses; and points out risks and regulatory issues as Bitcoin interacts with the conventional financial system and the real economy.

Pivots and Incentives at LevelUp (teaching materials) with Karen Webster

Edelman, Benjamin, and Karen Webster. “Pivots and Incentives at LevelUp.” Harvard Business School Case 915-001, August 2014. (Revised March 2015.) (educator access at HBP. request courtesy copy.)

LevelUp’s mobile payments service lets users scan a smartphone barcode rather than swipe a credit card. Will consumers embrace the service? Will merchants? LevelUp considers adjustments to make the service attractive to both consumers and merchants, while trying to accelerate deployment at reasonable cost.

Teaching Materials:

Pivots and Incentives at LevelUp – Teaching Note (HBP 915015)

Optimization and Expansion at OpenTable (teaching materials) with Karen Webster

Edelman, Benjamin, and Karen Webster. “Optimization and Expansion at OpenTable.” Harvard Business School Case 915-003, August 2014. (Revised March 2015.) (educator access at HBP. request courtesy copy.)

OpenTable considers adjustments to increase its benefits to merchants, including a novel payments service that lets customers skip the multi-step process of using a credit card.

Supplement:

Optimization and Expansion at OpenTable – PowerPoint Supplement (HBP 910010)

Teaching Materials:

Optimization and Expansion at OpenTable – Teaching Note (HBP 915013)

Price Coherence: Impact and Incentives with Julian Wright

In modern markets, buyers can often buy the same good or service directly from a seller, and through one or more intermediaries, all at the same exact price. How should buyers behave in these markets? The natural strategy is to choose whichever intermediary offers the greatest benefit — perhaps a rebate, some loyalty points, or superior service. One intermediary might charge sellers far higher fees than another. But to buyers, these fees are irrelevant since they are paid entirely by sellers. It’s a classic I-choose-you-pay situation, and buyers predictably head for high-benefit intermediaries. The resulting outcomes can be both distortionary and welfare-reducing. For example, seeing an airline’s flights available both directly on the airline’s web site and via an online travel agent (like Expedia or Orbitz) (“OTA”), a buyer has every reason to choose the latter — avoiding retyping name, address, and payment details that the OTA already has on file. Convenient as an OTA may be, few users would willingly pay the ~$3 per segment (~$12 for a standard US domestic connecting round-trip) that OTAs charge to airlines. So too for credit cards: Their rebates and points are valuable, but most consumers would prefer a ~3% discount (the fee the seller pays to the card network).

Last week Julian Wright and I posted Price Coherence and Adverse Intermediation, analyzing incentives and outcomes in affected markets. We find that price coherence reduces consumer surplus and welfare due to inflated retail prices, over-investment in providing benefits to buyers, and excessive usage of intermediaries’ services. Notably, competition among intermediaries does not fix these problems: Indeed, competition among intermediaries intensifies the problems by increasing the magnitude of the effects and broadening the circumstances in which they arise.

Our analysis is grounded in eight diverse markets: insurance brokers and financial advisors, marketplaces, cashback/rebate services, search engine advertising, real estate buyers’ agents, restaurant ordering, and restaurant reservations, plus travel booking and credit cards as discussed above. In each instance, a law, norm, intermediary policy, or similar rigidity prevents sellers from passing an intermediary’s fees to the specific buyers who choose to use that intermediary. They’re complex markets, some quite large, and each worth a look. Their key similarity: In each instance, if a buyer foregoes the corresponding intermediary, the buyer still pays a share of intermediaries’ charges for others. If a buyer places a benefit on the intermediary’s service, perhaps still far less than what the intermediary charges the seller, the buyer might as well sign up.

It may seem counterintuitive that a series of voluntary transactions leaves all parties worse off. After all, no one would willingly enter a single transaction that makes him worse off. But the interlocking relationships truly can have that effect. Returning to the airline example: Consumers use OTAs because they anticipate, correctly, that substantially all airlines are in OTAs and because consumers know that prices are equal whether buying from an OTA versus directly from an airline. With many users shopping at OTA web sites, airlines then feel compelled to offer their flights via OTAs. In general, an individual airline would not want to withhold its flights from OTAs — it would lose too many sales. And an individual consumer has no reason to book directly — no cash savings from forgoing the OTA-provided benefits. On net, both buyer and seller end up using the intermediary even when they were perfectly capable of finding each other directly and even when the intermediary’s fees exceed the value the intermediary actually provides.

Our draft:

Price Coherence and Excessive Intermediation (last updated March 2015)

(update: published as “Price Coherence and Excessive Intermediation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 130, no. 3 (August 2015): 1283-1328.)

Deception in Post-Transaction Marketing updated December 5, 2009

Post-transaction marketers Webloyalty, Vertrue, and Affinion have attracted criticism for solicitations that tend to deceive consumers. They typically feature recurring billing programs that promise a savings or discount, but actually charge users on an ongoing basis. They promote these services while customers are finishing the checkout process at trusted e-commerce sites — a time when few users expect unrelated offers from third parties. Furthermore, they obtain consumers’ credit card numbers from partner sites — so a user may enter a billing relationship and face credit card charges without providing a card number to the company that posts the charges.

In this posting, I present key primary source documents (internal company emails and analyses and reports from victim consumers) as well as outside analyses (a Senate staff report and testimony from hearing witnesses including my own statement for the record).

Higlights of my Statement for the Record: I argue that the timing, placement, and format of post-transaction offers deceptively suggest that the offers are part of the checkout process. (3) I suggest that automatic transfer of consumers’ payment information removes a key warning that customers are incurring a financial obligation. (3-4) I examine disclosures and find them inadequate to cure the deception resulting from the substance, format, and context of the offers. (5) I point out that credit card network rules disallow key post-transaction marketing practices, and I suggest that credit card networks enforce these rules. (6-7) I suggests that low usage rates support an inference of deception, and I provide an empirical strategy to estimate usage rates from publicly-available sources. (7)

Details:

Deception in Post-Transaction Marketing

In a subsequent analysis, I cite, quote, and analyze relevant credit card network rules — finding that those requirements disallow key post-transaction marketing practices:

Payment Card Network Rules Prohibit Aggressive Post-Transaction Tactics