Register, a provider of domain name registration services, derived its authority to act as a registrar for the issuance of domain names from a standard form agreement with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a public benefit corporation established by the United States Government to administer the domain name system.
Under the agreement (ICANN Agreement), Register was required to maintain and update a publicly available 'WHOIS' database of registrants' contact information, and was not to impose restrictions on the use of this data, except in relation to the electronic spamming of the registrants.
Register established a WHOIS database, which it updated on a daily basis, and provided a free public inquiry service for the information contained therein. Register's responses to WHOIS queries were captioned by a 'legend' stating that by submitting a query, the user agreed to refrain from using the data to conduct mass solicitations of business by email, direct mail or telephone (a more stringent restriction than that envisaged under the ICANN Agreement, which was only in relation to the restriction of mass solicitation by email).
In an aggressive marketing campaign, Verio developed an automated software program or 'robot' (Robot) to access the WHOIS database and compile massive lists of new domain name registrants whom Verio then subjected to a barrage of unsolicited marketing by email, direct mail and telephone.
Register demanded that Verio stop, however Verio only partially complied with this demand, ceasing the email solicitations, but continuing to market by direct mail and telephone. Register proceeded to charge Verio with violating the terms, forbidding use of WHOIS data for mass solicitation, that were displayed in Register's legend each time it provided WHOIS data.
Verio argued that it did not become contractually bound to Register because it never received legally enforceable notice of Register's conditions as the restrictive legend did not appear until after Verio had submitted the query and received the WHOIS data. Accordingly, Verio contended that it had never assented to Register's contract terms and therefore should not be deemed to have taken the WHOIS data from Register's systems subject to these conditions.
'[w]e recognize that contract offers on the Internet often require the offeree to click on an "I agree" icon … no doubt in many circumstances, such a statement is essential to the formation of a contract. But not in all circumstances. While new commerce on the Internet has exposed courts to many new situations, it has not fundamentally changed the principles of contract. It is standard contract doctrine that when a benefit is offered subject to stated conditions, and the offeree makes a decision to take the benefit with knowledge of the terms of the offer, the taking constitutes an acceptance of the terms, which accordingly become binding on the offeree.'
Particular significance was attached to the fact that Verio was a commercial entity that was making numerous, successive inquiries of Register's database, as a result of which it had become well aware of the terms exacted by Register. Accordingly the Court dismissed Verio's contention that:
'it obtained the WHOIS data without being conscious that Register intended to impose conditions, and without being deemed to have accepted Register's conditions'
although the Court noted that this argument may have been persuasive had Verio's queries been sporadic and infrequent.
The decision also canvasses issues in relation to ICANN policy and trespass to chattels, but these are beyond the scope of this article.
As electronic commerce has developed, courts have been confronted with the task of applying age-old principles of contract law to various online permutations of the classic idea of agreement between parties. While, in recent years, courts have become comfortable with enforcing agreements supported by 'clickwrap' procedures, up until now there has been no authority in relation to the enforceability of 'browsewrap' or 'Web wrap' agreements.
This case helps to elucidate contract principles as they apply to browsewrap agreements and, in particular, clarifies the circumstances in which the provisions of browsewrap agreements will be held to be enforceable.
Although Australian courts are not bound by American case law, the decision in Verio provides a useful guide as to how an Australian court might deal with the issue
1. Specht v Netscape Communications Corp., 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002), in which the Court declined to enforce terms specified by Netscape against a user of Netscape's software due to insufficient evidence that the user had seen the terms when downloading the software. The terms of Netscape's offer of software were posted on the website from which the user downloaded the software. However, the user would not have seen them without scrolling down their computer screen, and there was no reason for them to do this.
2 Ticketmaster Corp. v Tickets.com Inc., No. CV99-7654, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12987, 2000 WL 1887522, in which the Court, noting that the taker of the information was not provided with an 'I agree' icon to click (although fully aware of the terms on which information was offered on Ticketmaster's site), concluded that there was insufficient proof of agreement to support a preliminary injunction. The Court in the present decision comments that '[u]nder the circumstances of Ticketmaster, we see no reason why the enforceability of the offeror's terms should depend on whether the taker states (or clicks), "I agree".'
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.