Technology has made many responsibilities far more convenient than they used to be. Unfortunately, some things are becoming too convenient, as a Dallas family learned last month.
Recently, Craig Ashton and Ed Schade discussed how a young girl purchased a pricey dollhouse through Amazon’s Alexa system and billed it to her parents:
Craig: “Let’s go ahead and talk about a six year old girl that was talking to her family’s new Echo Dot. And if you don’t know what this is, this is basically a computerized system that looks like a tennis ball can, but very stylish. It’s black…”
Ed: “It’s like Siri on your smartphone, but it’s on all the time when you announce its name.”
Craig: “Yeah, so if you say the word ‘Alexa,’ it automatically [illuminates] the top circle and it turns blue. And then it… actually points to where it thinks the voice is coming from. And you can ask it questions: The definitions of words, jokes, you can ask it to render pi out to a thousand decimal places.”
While Amazon’s Alexa can be very useful, it can be a bit too sensitive to casual conversation.
Ed: “Last night my wife goes, ‘What are you going to talk about [on the radio show]?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re going to talk about this Alexa thing.’ And all of a sudden Alexa in the corner of our room goes, ‘I didn’t understand the question.’ As soon as it heard its name, it popped up!”
Craig: “The thing is, if it’s on all the time, Amazon is trying to monetize conversations and determining what your likes and dislikes are so they can sell you stuff. That’s the whole point of it. The entertainment value is merely a separate issue that allows you to interact with it, but Amazon’s [goal] is to sell you stuff.”
In order to maximize the opportunity to sell products to consumers, Amazon has designed its Alexa system to allow consumers to order products from Amazon simply by interacting with the product.
But what happens when a minor is the one making a purchase through Alexa?
Craig: “This little girl in Dallas… she’s basically having a conversation with Alexa, and she admits that she was talking to Alexa about dollhouses and cookies, but she denies the fact that she actually ordered them (through Alexa). Now, if she would have gotten a Ginsu knife set and perhaps a deep sea fishing pole for swordfish or something, I could see that it might be accidental, but the fact that she got a dollhouse and four pounds of cookies, that seems kind of age-appropriate.
“So, there is a control feature on there which you can use, you give it [a 4 digit PIN] before something gets purchased, which I think if you have [an Echo] it’s a good idea because… I’ve noticed a couple charges on my Amazon account that I didn’t make. Sixteen bucks, so we’re probably going to be getting a book somewhere that we didn’t order. We’ll see what it is. I guess it is kind of exciting if you only spent sixteen dollars, and it’s kind of like a surprise party!”
For the most part, any online purchase made by a minor is voidable, as minors cannot enter into contracts.
Ed: “Well, the nice thing was is that these parents took the dollhouse, they’re looking for a nice charity to give the dollhouse away… but at the end of the day, it’s a six year old, and six year olds are not old enough to contract. They could have just voided the contract altogether.”
Craig: “Yeah, the contract is voidable. They decided to eat the cookies—not a bad idea—and then they donated the dollhouse, which is certainly philanthropic. So Alexa may get some credit for that as well. So happy ending, but from a legal perspective it’s a contract entered into with Amazon through the conduit which is Alexa… she’s six so… that is a voidable contract. They could have said, ‘Look, we’re sending this back. You can’t enter into a contract with my daughter.
“The issue is that there are parental controls that they didn’t [enable], so there could be an argument that, ‘You were negligent in allowing this to occur, and therefore ‘unclean hands,’ and the contract then would be enforceable.”
In his moment of playing devil’s advocate, Craig referred to the concept of ‘unclean hands,’ which is a doctrine sometimes invoked by defense attorneys when arguing that a plaintiff isn’t entitled to financial compensation. In this context, it could be argued that the Dallas parents wouldn’t be entitled to compensation because they failed to implement Alexa’s password protection features.
While it would be an interesting argument to see play out in court, Amazon’s more practical concerns make corporate liability litigation unlikely.
Ed: “Amazon’s going to want [the Echo] to stay in their house, so they’re going to say, ‘Not a problem, we’re going to take it back.’”
Craig: “Yeah, $170 is not going to lead to a lawsuit.”