Reports to advertisers about website content were protected speech

Plaintiff sued defendant in California state court for trade libel and other business torts over confidential reports that defendant provided to its customers (who advertised on plaintiff’s website) characterizing plaintiff’s websites as associated with copyright infringement and adult content.

Defendant moved to dismiss under California’s anti-SLAPP statute which, among other things, protects speech that is a matter of public concern. The trial court granted the anti-SLAPP motion. Plaintiff sought review. On appeal, the court affirmed the anti-SLAPP dismissal.

The court held that the communications concerning plaintiff’s websites (as being associated with intellectual property infringement or adult content) were matters of public concern, even though the communications were not public.

FilmOn.com v. DoubleVerify, Inc., 2017 WL 2807911 (Cal. Ct. App., June 29, 2017)

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.

Quora gets Section 230 victory in the Tenth Circuit

Pro se plaintiff Silver filed suit in federal court in New Mexico against the online question-and-answer website Quora, alleging that statements made by two different individuals concerning his professional services were defamatory. Quora moved to dismiss, arguing that the immunity provisions of the Communications Decency Act, at 47 U.S.C. 230 shielded it from liability arising from content posted by its users. The district court granted the motion to dismiss. Plaintiff sought review with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. On review, the court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case.

Citing to its previous Section 230 precedent, Ben Ezra, Weinstein, & Co. v. Am. Online Inc., 206 F.3d 980 (10th Cir. 2000), the court held that Quora was a provider of “an interactive computer service,” that its actions forming the basis of alleged liability, namely, in hosting the content, were that of a “publisher or speaker,” and that the content giving rise to the alleged liability was from “another information content provider,” i.e., the users who posted the content.

Silver v. Quora, Inc., 2016 WL 6892146 (10th Circuit, November 23, 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.

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.

Donald Trump wins smackdown victory in defamation and tortious interference lawsuit over domain name dispute

Donald Trump filed a UDRP action against plaintiff Stevens over plaintiff’s registration of the domain name TrumpEstates.com. While that action was pending, plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Trump, his organization, and his lawyers, asserting claims of defamation, tortious interference with business relations, and also seeking a declaratory judgment concerning cybersquatting.

Trump moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court granted the motion and dismissed the action with prejudice.

The defamation claim failed because plaintiff had established a website at the disputed domain name that provided a link to a New York Post article that republished the report of the defamatory allegations, namely, that plaintiff had violated the law and had committed cybersquatting by registering the disputed domain name. This claim failed under New York law because words voluntarily disseminated to the world by the party allegedly aggrieved cannot, by definition, be found defamatory.

The tortious interference claim failed because plaintiff did not identify any third party with which it had a business relationship, let alone one with which the Trump defendants interfered and injured.

Plaintiff’s claim for declaratory judgment sought an order from the court holding that plaintiff had not improperly registered the domain name. The court found that plaintiff did not offer any factual allegations of he acted in good faith when he registered the disputed domain name. Instead, plaintiff actually admitted that his business centered around the reselling of domain names. Federal law recognizes it to be an indication of bad faith when it offers to transfer, sell, or otherwise assign a domain name to the mark owner or any third party for financial gain without having used, or having an intent to use, the domain name in a bona fide offering of any goods or services. (In this case, the disputed domain name had been advertised as being for sale for $400,000.)

The case can be properly characterized as a “smackdown” because the court dismissed the action with prejudice, meaning that plaintiff does not have the opportunity to refile the deficient complaint. The court added some gloss on the part of the opinion where it determined that leave to amend it would be improper. It noted that the “network of regulations” that protect trademark owners’ interests in domain names makes “crystal clear that, even in cyberspace, the TRUMP mark is entitled to regulatory protection fair and square.” The court went on to note that it was inconceivable that plaintiff could, as the silence of his papers emphasized, plead any facts that would entitle him to co-opt the Trump name.

Stephens v. Trump, 2016 WL 4702437 (E.D.N.Y., September 7, 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.

Newspaper not liable for alleged defamatory letter to editor published online

The Appellate Court of Illinois has sided in favor of a local newspaper in a defamation lawsuit brought against the paper over a reader’s allegedly defamatory letter to the editor. The court held that the Communciations Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. 230) “absolved” the newspaper of liability over this appearance of third party content on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff — a lawyer and self-identified civil rights advocate — sent several letters to local businesses claiming those businesses did not have enough handicapped parking spaces. Instead of merely asking the businesses to create those parking spaces, he demanded each one pay him $5,000 or face a lawsuit.

One local resident thought plaintiff’s demands were greedy and extortionate, and wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper covering the story. The newspaper posted the letter online. Both the newspaper and the letter’s author found themselves as defendants in plaintiff’s defamation lawsuit.

The letter-writer settled with plaintiff, but the newspaper stayed in as a defendant and moved to dismiss, arguing that federal law immunized it from liability for content provided by the third party letter-writer.

The lower court dismissed the defamation claim against the newspaper, holding that the Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. §230) protected the newspaper from liability for the third party letter-writer’s comments posted on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff sought review with the Appellate Court of Illinois. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal.

The Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C §230(c)(1)) 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.” The appellate court found that the leter-writer was another information content provider that placed comments on the newspaper’s website. Therefore, it held that the Communications Decency Act “absolved” the newspaper from responsibility.

Straw v. Streamwood Chamber of Commerce, 2015 IL App (1st) 143094-U (September 29, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

Complaint site does not have to identify its users

Petitioner filed an action in New York state court seeking to compel PissedConsumer.com to disclose the identity of the person or persons who posted certain statements to the site. These statements criticized petitioner for allegedly failing to fulfill an advertising promise to give the user a $500 gas card. The anonymous user went on to complain that petitioner “will forget about you and … all the promises they made to you” once “you sign on the dotted line.”

The trial court denied the petition to compel PissedConsumer.com to turn over the names of its users. Petitioner sought review with the Appellate Division. On appeal, the court affirmed.

It held that the lower court properly denied the petition since petitioner failed to demonstrate that it had a meritorious cause of action as required to obtain pre-action discovery:

Nothing in the petition identifies specific facts that are false and when the statements complained of are viewed in context, they suggest to a reasonable reader that the writer was a dissatisfied customer who utilized respondent’s consumers’ grievance website to express an opinion. Although some of the statements are based on undisclosed, unfavorable facts known to the writer, the disgruntled tone, anonymous posting, and predominant use of statements that cannot be definitively proven true or false, supports the finding that the challenged statements are only susceptible of a non-defamatory meaning, grounded in opinion.

The court seemed to recognize the importance of anonymous speech, and that one must not lightly cast aside its protections. If you’re going to go after an online critic, best have a cause of action that you can actually plead.

Woodbridge Structured Funding, LLC v. Pissed Consumer, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2015 WL 686383, (February 19, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients with technology, intellectual property and new media issues.

Court orders Twitter to identify anonymous users

Defamation plaintiffs’ need for requested information outweighed any impact on Doe defendants’ free speech right to tweet anonymously.

Plaintiff company and its CEO sued several unknown defendants who tweeted that plaintiff company encouraged domestic violence and misogyny and that the CEO visited prostitutes. The court allowed plaintiffs to serve subpoenas on Twitter to seek the identity of the unknown Twitter users. Twitter would not comply with the subpoenas unless and until the court ruled on whether the production of information would violate the users’ First Amendment rights.

The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered Twitter to turn over identifying information about the unknown users. In reaching this decision, the court applied the Ninth Circuit analysis for unmasking anonymous internet speakers set out in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 591 F.3d. 1126 (9th Cir. 2009). The court found that the requested discovery raised the possibility of “arguable first amendment infringement,” so it continued its analysis by weighing the balance between the aggrieved plaintiffs’ interests with the anonymous defendants’ free speech rights.

The Perry balancing test places a burden on the party seeking discovery to show that the information sought is rationally related to a compelling governmental interest and that the requested discovery is the least restrictive means of obtaining the desired information.

In this case, the court found that the subpoenas were narrowly tailored to plaintiffs’ need to uncover the identities of the anonymous defendants so that plaintiffs could serve process. It also found that the “nature” of defendants’ speech weighed in favor of enforcing the subpoena. The challenged speech went “beyond criticism into what appear[ed] to be pure defamation, ostensibly unrelated to normal corporate activity.”

Music Group Macao Commercial Offshore Ltd. v. Does I-IX, 2015 WL 75073 (N.D. Cal., January 6, 2015).

When is it okay to use social media to make fun of people?

There is news from California that discusses a Facebook page called 530 Fatties that was created to collect photos of and poke fun at obese people. It’s a rude project, and sets the context for discussing some intriguing legal and normative issues.

Apparently the site collects photos that are taken in public. One generally doesn’t have a privacy interest in being photographed while in public places. And that seems pretty straightforward if you stop and think about it — you’re in public after all. But should technology change that legal analysis? Mobile devices with good cameras connected to high speed broadband networks make creation, sharing and shaming much easier than it used to be. A population equipped with these means essentially turns all public space into a panopticon. Does that mean the individual should be given more of something-like-privacy when in public? If you think that’s crazy, consider it in light of what Justice Sotomayor wrote in her concurrence in the 2012 case of U.S. v. Jones: “I would ask whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables [one] to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on.”

Apart from privacy harms, what else is at play here? For the same reasons that mobile cameras + social media jeopardizes traditional privacy assurances, the combination can magnify the emotional harms against a person. The public shaming that modern technology occasions can inflict deeper wounds because of the greater spatial and temporal characteristics of the medium. One can now easily distribute a photo or other content to countless individuals, and since the web means the end of forgetting, that content may be around for much longer than the typical human memory.

Against these concerns are the free speech interests of the speaking parties. In the U.S. especially, it’s hardwired into our sensibilities that each of us has great freedom to speak and otherwise express ourselves. The traditional First Amendment analysis will protect speech — even if it offends — unless there is something truly unlawful about it. For example, there is no free speech right to defame, to distribute obscene materials, or to use “fighting words.” Certain forms of harassment fall into the category of unprotected speech. How should we examine the role that technology plays in moving what would otherwise be playground-like bullying (like calling someone a fatty) to unlawful speech that can subject one to civil or even criminal liability? Is the impact that technology’s use makes even a valid issue to discuss?

Finally, we should examine the responsibility of the intermediaries here. A social media platform generally is going to be protected by the Communications Decency Act at 47 USC 230 from liability for third party content. But we should discuss the roles of the intermediary in terms other than pure legal ones. Many social media platforms are proactive in taking down otherwise lawful content that has the tendency to offend. The pervasiveness of social media underscores the power that these platforms have to shape normative values around what is appropriate behavior among individuals. This power is indeed potentially greater than any legal or governmental power to constrain the generation and distribution of content.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media.

Sixth Circuit holds thedirty.com entitled to Section 230 immunity

Plaintiff Jones (a high school teacher and Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader) sued the website thedirty.com and its operator for defamation over a number of third party posts that said mean things about plaintiff. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Communications Decency Act — 47 USC § 230(c)(1) — afforded them immunity from liability for the content created by third parties. Articulating a “goofy legal standard,” the district court denied the motion, and the case was tried twice. The first trial ended in a mistrial, and the second time the jury found in favor of plaintiff.

Defendants sought review with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on the issue of whether whether the district court erred in denying defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law by holding that the CDA did not bar plaintiff’s state tort claims. On appeal, the court reversed the district court and ordered that judgment as a matter of law be entered in defendants’ favor.

Section 230(c)(1) 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.” At its core, § 230 grants immunity to defendant service providers in lawsuits seeking to hold the service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions—such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content.

But the grant of immunity is not without limits. It applies only to the extent that an interactive computer service provider is not also the information content provider of the content at issue. A defendant is not entitled to protection from claims based on the publication of information if the defendant is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of the information.

The district court held that “a website owner who intentionally encourages illegal or actionable third-party postings to which he adds his own comments ratifying or adopting the posts becomes a ‘creator’ or ‘developer’ of that content and is not entitled to immunity.” Thus, the district court concluded that “[d]efendants, when they re-published the matters in evidence, had the same duties and liabilities for re-publishing libelous material as the author of such materials.”

The appellate court held that the district court’s test for what constitutes “creation” or “development” was too broad. Instead, the court looked to the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Fair Hous. Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008) and adopted the material contribution test from that opinion:

[W]e interpret the term “development” as referring not merely to augmenting the content generally, but to materially contributing to its alleged unlawfulness. In other words, a website helps to develop unlawful content, and thus falls within the exception to section 230, if it contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.

In the Sixth Circuit’s language, “[A] material contribution to the alleged illegality of the content does not mean merely taking action that is necessary to the display of allegedly illegal content. Rather, it means being responsible for what makes the displayed content allegedly unlawful.”

In this case, the defendants did not author the statements at issue. But they did select the statements for publication. The court held that defendants did not materially contribute to the defamatory content of the statements simply because those posts were selected for publication. Moreover, the website did not require users to post illegal or actionable content as a condition of use. The website’s content submission form simply instructed users generally to submit content. The court found the tool to be neutral (both in orientation and design) as to what third parties submit. Accordingly, the website design did not constitute a material contribution to any defamatory speech that was uploaded.

Jones v. Dirty World, No. 13-5946 (6th Cir. June 16, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media. Contact him.

Injunction against blogger violated the First Amendment

Prohibiting former tenant from blogging about landlord was unconstitutional prior restraint against speech.

800px-Taize-SilenceDefendants wrote several blog posts critical of their former commercial landlord. The landlord sued for defamation and tortious interference, and sought an injunction against defendants’ blogging. The trial court granted the injunction, determining that defendants had “blogged extensively about [plaintiffs] and many of these blogs [were] arguably defamatory.” Although the court noted that a trial on the defamation claims was yet to be held, it ordered defendants “not to enter defamatory blogs in the future.”

Defendants sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

It held that injunctive relief was not available to prohibit the making of defamatory or libelous statements. “A temporary injunction directed to speech is a classic example of prior restraint on speech triggering First Amendment concerns.” But the court noted a limited exception to the general rule where the defamatory words are made in the furtherance of the commission of another intentional tort.

In this case, plaintiffs alleged another intentional tort – intentional interference with advantageous business relationships. But the court found that plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence to show they were entitled to an injunction for that claim. The trial court record failed to support an inference that the defendants’ blog posts had a deleterious effect upon defendants’ prospective business relationships.

Chevaldina v. R.K./FL Management, Inc., — So.3d —, 2014 WL 443977 (Fla.App. 3 Dist. February 5, 2014)

Image credit: By Maik Meid (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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