An interesting application of Section 230 and a long arm statute

Plaintiff Whitney Information Network sued the owners of the infamous Ripoffreport.com and other sites over some negative postings about Whitney appearing online. In July 2005, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida dismissed Whitney’s complaint, holding that the defendants were immune from defamation liability under provisions of the Communications Decency Act found at 47 U.S.C. §230. [Read more about that decision.]

Apparently recognizing the challenges presented by Section 230, which provides that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” Whitney filed an amended complaint. This time it alleged that the defendants played an active role in generating the complained-of content by revising benign third party postings to add words like “ripoff,” “dishonest,” and “scam.”

The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing a lack of personal jurisdiction for Whitney’s failure to satisfy the requirements of Florida’s long arm statute (Fla. Stat. §48.193). That statute provides, among other things, that a Florida court can exercise personal jurisdiction over an out of state defendant if that defendant commits a tortious act within the state. This can be done, for example, through electronic communications into the state. Wendt v. Horowitz, 822 So.2d 1252 (Fla. 2002).

The defendants did not dispute that the amended complaint successfully alleged active participation on their part in generating the alleged defamatory content. But in connection with their motion to dismiss, they submitted a couple of affidavits, including one from a technological consultant named Smith, which they claimed controverted the plaintiff’s allegations supporting jurisdiction.

These affidavits tended to support the defendants’ argument that they were not responsible for modifying any postings made to their sites. If they were merely the provider of the interactive computer service, and not the actual content provider, so they argued, Section 230 immunized them from tort liability. Without tort liability, there could not be any tortious conduct directed to the state. No tortious conduct directed to the state, no personal jurisdiction under the long arm statute.

The district court bought this clever argument, holding that the affidavits put the burden back on the plaintiff to come forward with more evidence supporting the exercise of personal jurisdiction. In the district court’s mind, the plaintiffs failed to meet that burden, so it dismissed the case.

But the Eleventh Circuit disagreed. It reversed and remanded the lower court’s dismissal, holding that the defendants’ affidavits, with which they tried to make themselves something other than content providers, were insufficient to shift the burden in the first place.

For example, although Smith (the technological consultant) stated that none of the postings’ IP addresses were associated with the defendants’ computers, he conceded that he was unable to obtain IP addresses for three of the complained-of postings. The defendants were trying to show that they were not responsible for tampering with any of the content. But the court saw through that argument, observing also that it was unclear whether the defendants’ own IP addresses would have shown up had they merely modified any of the postings, rather than create them.

For these reasons, the appellate court held that the defendants had not successfully rebutted the plaintiff’s allegations supporting the exercise of jurisdiction pursuant to the Florida long arm statute. It remanded for further proceedings on the question of whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction would comport with constitutional due process.

Whitney Information Network, Inc. v. Xcentric Ventures, LLC (Slip Op.) 2006 WL 2243041 (August 1, 2006).