Yelp not liable for allegedly defamatory customer reviews

In a recent case having an outcome that should surprise no one, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed a lower court’s decision that held Yelp immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. 230 – the “CDA”) over customer reviews that were allegedly defamatory.

Plaintiff sued Yelp for violations under RICO and the Washington Consumer Protection Act, as well as libel under Washington law. Yelp moved to dismiss for failure to state to claim upon which relief may be granted. The lower court found that plaintiff had failed to allege any facts that plausibly suggested Yelp was responsible for the content, and therefore dismissed the case. Plaintiffs sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

The appellate court observed that plaintiff’s complaint, which he filed pro se, “pushed the envelope” of creative pleading. The court observed that plaintiff cryptically – “to the point of opacity” – alleged that Yelp was the one that created and developed the offending content. The court declined to open the door to such “artful skirting” of the Communications Decency Act’s safe harbor provision.

The key question before the court was whether the alleged defamatory reviews were provided by Yelp or by another information content provider. CDA immunity does not extend to situations where the web site itself is responsible for the creation or development of the offending content. The immunity protects providers or users of interactive computer services when the claims being made against them seek to treat them as a publisher or speaker of the information provided by another information content provider.

In this case, the court found that a careful reading of plaintiff’s complaint revealed that he never specifically alleged that Yelp created the content of the allegedly defamatory posts. Rather, plaintiff pled that Yelp adopted them from another website and transformed them into its own stylized promotions. The court found that these “threadbare” allegations of Yelp’s fabrication of allegedly defamatory statements were implausible on their face and were insufficient to avoid immunity under the Communications Decency Act. The court was careful to note that CDA immunity does not extend to content created or developed by an interactive computer service. “But the immunity in the CDA is broad enough to require plaintiffs alleging such a theory to state the facts plausibly suggesting the defendant fabricated content under a third party’s identity.”

The plaintiff had alleged in part that Yelp’s rating system and its use by the author of the allegedly defamatory content resulted in the creation or development of information by Yelp. The court rejected this argument, finding that the rating system did “absolutely nothing to enhance the defamatory sting of the message beyond the words offered by the user.” The court further observed that the star rating system was best characterized as a neutral tool operating on voluntary inputs that did not amount to content development or creation.

Finally, the court addressed plaintiff’s cryptic allegations that Yelp should be held liable for republishing the alleged defamatory content as advertisements or promotions on Google. A footnote in the opinion states that plaintiff was not clear whether the alleged republication was anything more than the passive indexing of Yelp reviews by the Google crawler. The decision’s final outcome, however, does not appear to depend on whether Google indexed that content as Yelp passively stood by or whether Yelp affirmatively directed the content to Google. “Nothing in the text of the CDA indicates that immunity turns on how many times an interactive computer service publishes information provided by another information content provider.” In the same way that Yelp would not be liable for posting user generated content on its web site, it would not be liable for disseminating the same content in essentially the same format to a search engine. “Simply put, proliferation and dissemination of content does not equal creation or development of content.”

Kimzey v. Yelp! Inc., — F.3d —, 2016 WL 4729492 (9th Cir. September 12, 2016)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.