Section 230 shields Google from liability for anonymous defamation

Black v. Google Inc., 2010 WL 3746474 (N.D.Cal. September 20, 2010)

Back in August, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit against Google brought by two pro se plaintiffs, holding that the action was barred under the immunity provisions of 47 USC 230. That section says 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.” Plaintiffs had complained about a comment on Google (probably a review) disparaging their roofing business.

Plaintiffs filed and “objection” to the dismissal, which the court read as a motion to alter or amend under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59. The court denied plaintiffs’ motion.

In their “objection,” plaintiffs claimed — apparently without much support — that Congress did not intend Section 230 to apply in situations involving anonymous speech. The court did not buy this argument.

The court looked to the Ninth Circuit case of Carafano v. Metrosplash as an example of a website operator protected under Section 230 from liability for anonymous content: “To be sure, the website [in Carafano] provided neutral tools, which the anonymous dastard used to publish the libel, but the website did absolutely nothing to encourage the posting of defamatory content.” As in Carafano, Google was a passive conduit and could not be liable for failing to detect and remove the allegedly defamatory content.

3 thoughts on “Section 230 shields Google from liability for anonymous defamation

  1. Donna Morris

    Wish we had such a precedent-setting ruling in Canada. Newspapers here have overreacted to potential legal liability and have thrown up hurdles to anonymous online comments, some eliminating them altogether. While I acknowledge there are arguments for both identification and anonymity when posting comments, anyone who follows the news regularly will probably admit there can be dire professional and/or workplace consequences in publicly exposing corruption, wrongdoing or malfeasance. Some of this exposure, and its benefit to the public, will disappear along with anonymity. Legal protection is desireable for the publication conduits that still permit anonymity.

  2. Jack Whittington

    It seems that more and more review sites are coming under fire for their reviews section. TripAdvisor has come under intense scrutiny as of late by a barrage of hotels for the comments posted on their site which the hotels claim misrepresent their facilities and services. It will be interesting to see if this precedent gets applied in the more narrow context of specific sites as opposed to the broader lens of the reviews that one can comment on the google search engine. Thanks for passing this information along it is extremely helpful, keep up the great work.

  3. @JonathanFrieden

    I'm not sure why this issue keeps coming up, given how broad Section 230 immunity is. The simple rule which has emerged from all of the appellate decisions addressing Section 230 is clear: If the “essential published content” is willingly provided by a third-party, the interactive computer service provider publishing that content enjoys the full immunity afforded by Section 230. End of story.

    It doesn't matter if the third-party is anonymous. It doesn't matter if the website operator exercises an editorial function or selectively publishes the third-party content. Short of its requiring third-parties to post illegal content (a la Roommates.com), the website operator will always be immune. In this context, the interactive computer service provider would only be subject to liability if it required third-parties to post defamatory material in order to use the service.

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